After paving the way for integrating unmanned helicopters onto US Navy ships, Northrop Grumman has disclosed details of two new projects to show the company is not falling behind as the customer's need evolves.
Northrop's MQ-8B Fire Scout is now in low-rate initial production for the Navy's Littoral Combat Ships, but the Navy is already expanding its vision for vertical takeoff capability.
In April, the Navy released a request for information for a persistent ship-based unmanned aircraft system (PSB UAS), which would be installed on several classes of ships after 2016 for surveillance, targeting and strike. The aircraft would perform a similar role as Fire Scout, but with far greater payload capacity and endurance.
Shortly afterward, Northrop announced teaming up with Bell Helicopter to convert the 407 helicopter into an optionally piloted vehicle.
This unmanned 407, which Northrop calls Fire-X, is intended to meet the Navy's requirement for the PSB UAS program, says Bob Davis, a Northrop business development director.
With auxiliary fuel tanks installed inside the Fire-X cabin, the unmanned helicopter will have an endurance of 16.8h with a useful load of 1,450kg (3,200lbs), Davis disclosed at an AUVSI press conference.
Bell has delivered a 407 airframe for Northrop to modify into an unmanned demonstrator. Northrop has completed all design reviews ahead of first flight scheduled before end-year.
The demonstration is aimed at proving Northrop can operate the Fire-X safely as an unmanned helicopter, as well as move cargo autonomously, Davis says.
The Northrop/Bell teams also plans to develop a folding rotor system for Fire-X for shipboard compatibility. Further changes required to meet the Navy's marinization requirements have not been decided, Davis adds.
Beyond the requirement for the PSB UAS, Northrop also showed new details about an even more advanced cargo UAS. Previously named only as MUVR, Northrop has clarified the acronym means "modular unmanned vertical takeoff and landing resource."
The MUVR is focused on providing a more advanced capability with "higher velocity" for a similar mission after 2020.