Northrop Grumman executives have confirmed the US Navy’s first unmanned helicopter, the MQ-8B Fire Scout, is to be supplanted by a new airframe.
Though support for the MQ-8B will continue, development efforts have shifted decisively to a new airframe. The internally-developed replacement, called Fire-X, first flew on 10 December.
"We saw signs that the military was looking for greater capability than the MQ-8B could do," says George Vardoulakis, Northrop Grumman’s Fire-X programme manager, speaking at the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space Exposition on 11 April.
The USN, Fire Scout’s primary customer, has not formally issued a request for an upgrade, but this is anticipated as soon as during fiscal year 2012.
Vardoulakis says Northrop began the search for a new airframe a year and a half ago, focusing on technical maturity, great endurance and high payload capacity. They settled on the Bell 407, a popular civilian helicopter and upgrade of the US Army’s OH-58 Kiowa.
"We haven’t seen anything from the navy yet, so that was our best guess," Vardoulakis says.
Northrop’s development of the Bell 407 dramatically expands the performance envelope of its predecessor, roughly doubling endurance and lifting capacity. The improved performance allows for new missions using the same equipment and sensor package as the MQ-8B, notably delivering supplies for ground forces far inland.