The Northrop Grumman MQ-8C has completed a ground-based operational assessment to clear the US Navy to prepare for a low-rate production decision next year and ship-based testing in 2017.

The three-week assessment of the unmanned version of the Bell 407 helicopter at Naval Base Ventura County at Point Mugu, California, compiled 72 data points during 83.4 flight hours on 11 flights, according to Navy and Northrop officials.

The 407-based MQ-8C is being groomed by the navy to replace the Schweizer 333 with a longer-endurance and heavier payload for performing the Fire Scout role, which provides surveillance for the littoral combat ship.

“Testing has shown the systems is meeting or exceeding our goals and the completion of this test event represents a major step on the road to fleet introduction,” says Capt Jeff Dodge, the navy’s Fire Scout programme manager.

The navy launched development of the MQ-8C in 2012 with a $262 million contract award to Northrop.