By Calvin Biesecker

Northrop Grumman [NOC] and Textron‘s [TXT] Bell Helicopter division have teamed to develop and demonstrate a new medium- range vertical unmanned aircraft system (VUAS) called Fire-X that will be offered for a planned two-year Navy demonstration program that begins in FY ’11.

Fire-X will be based on Bell’s manned 407 single-engine helicopter, which has a 300 nautical mile range and is used for commercial, emergency medical services, law enforcement and utility applications, and Northrop Grumman’s architecture for its MQ-8B Fire Scout vertical UAS.

“The Fire-X system integrates Northrop Grumman’s proven unmanned systems know-how with a proven, FAA (Federal Aviation Administration)-certified helicopter airframe that’s been in service since 1996,” Gene Fraser, sector vice president and general manager for the Advanced Programs and Technology division of Northrop Grumman’s Aerospace Systems sector, said in a statement. “The result will be an affordable, fast-fielding system that delivers the maturity of the unmanned systems architecture developed by the U.S. Navy’s MQ-8B Fire Scout program, while giving military services the extra UAS cargo, payload and endurance they need.”

The two companies have been developing Fire-X since the beginning of this year and conducted a design review last week, Martin Peryea, director of Bell Helicopter’s XworX unit, told Defense Daily yesterday. He described the design as “low risk” and said the integration of the Fire Scout architecture into the Bell 407 will be “straight forward.” Modifications are being done to the aircraft now which in turn will lead to ground runs in anticipation of first flight by the end of 2010.

Northrop Grumman is developing the Fire Scout tactical UAS for the Navy and will integrate the aircraft’s vehicle management system, which is a modular architecture that can control a range of sensor and communications payloads, into the Bell 407. The Fire Scout vehicle management system can work with the Bell 407s flight control system, which means it won’t have to be recertified, Mike Fuqua, director of business development for Tactical UAS at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, told Defense Daily. The company also supplies the Bat and Hunter UAS systems and the BQM-74 aerial target.

Fire-X will add to Northrop Grumman’s portfolio of UAS systems that meet existing and emerging requirements, Fuqua said. In addition to Fire Scout, Northrop Grumman makes the Global Hawk high altitude and long endurance UAS for the Air Force and is developing a version of the system for the Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance program.

Compared to Fire Scout, Fire-X will offer greater payload capacity, range and endurance, Fuqua said. The companies said that Fire-X will be able to host payloads up to 3,000 pounds for flights lasting more than 14 hours and will be able to haul over 2,600 pounds of cargo externally.

The companies also said the new vertical UAS system will be able to operate with most current and future military control systems, such as the Navy’s Tactical Control Station used aboard ships and the Army’s One System ground control station that is also used by the Marine Corps.