The US Navy expects to enter initial operational test and evaluation for Northrop Grumman unmanned MQ-8C helicopter by this spring, with sea-based testing on the littoral combat ship to follow in the summer, says a US Navy programme manager.

Fire Scout testing appears to be on track with government estimates. The navy had planned to make a milestone C decision for the programme by the second quarter of fiscal year 2017, which would usher in the IOT&E, according to a 2016 report from the Pentagon’s top weapons tester.

Northrop's MQ-8C Fire Scout, derived from the four-bladed, single-engined Bell 407, will provide surveillance for the navy’s littoral combat ship. The unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft will provide greater payload, range and endurance than its predecessor, the smaller MQ-8B based on the Sikorsky S-333, though the two aircraft share a majority of their software.

The navy has already developed a capability for the advanced precision kill weapon system (APKWS) on the legacy MQ-8B, but development for the next-generation MQ-8C was put on hold due to to magazine restrictions and mission needs for the fleet, Navy programme manager Capt Jeff Dodge says.

“Right now we have a development plan for APKWS for the MQ-8C and to finish operationalizing it for the MQ-8B,” he says. “That effort is scheduled to start a couple years from now, the priority is getting the sensors first, making sure the connectivity is there and then later getting into weapons on the Fire Scout.”

Meanwhile, the navy is issuing an interim fix for its MQ-8B radar, until the MQ-8C is fielded. The 2016 Pentagon report recommended the navy should consider whether an MQ-8B equipped with a 180-degree radar is capable of providing area surveillance before fielding the aircraft in the fleet. The report also recommended additional tests to investigate the UAV’s ability to identify intended targets during operationally realistic scenarios.

While the service evaluate alternative antenna placements, the MQ-8B’s small size limited what the navy was able to do with its radars, Dodge says. Instead, the navy developed tactics to deal with the current radar’s limitations.

“The aircraft can fly a bow tie of flight which allows that radar to be pointed in the direction you want to keep it pointed while the aircraft loiters in one place,” he says. “We’ve also fielded some improvements to the electro-optical infrared sensor which actually does the target identification that allows better recognition of what the target is and allows the operator to slew the center of the field of view to the system a little bit better.”