The Bell Helicopter/Northrop Grumman Fire-X completed its first flight on 10 December, as the companies race to catch up with a quickly-emerging market for unmanned helicopters.
The maiden flight of the modified Bell 407 at the Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, comes seven months after the companies launched the self-funded demonstration programme. It was also achieved only three days after an original goal of 7 December set by the companies in early May.
Northrop and Bell have pushed the Fire-X concept quickly as the US Navy and Marine Corps have signed up two competitors - the Boeing A160 Hummingbird and Kaman Aerospace/Lockheed Martin K-Max - to demonstrate the ability of an autonomous aircraft to deliver cargo in a combat zone.
Northrop's previous offering, based on its MQ-8B Fire Scout, was rejected by the navy in August 2009 for not being able to carry enough payload. The Fire-X (concept image below) offers the ability to lift up to 1,450kg (3,200lb) of useful payload, Bell says. The aircraft also can remain airborne for up to 16h, according to the company's claims.
© Northrop Grumman
Beyond the upcoming demonstration, the US Marine Corps is in the formative stages of launching an autonomous cargo unmanned air vehicle programme of record called "ship-to-objective manoeuvre" in the 2013-14 timeframe, Northrop says.
Last April, the USN also disclosed interest after 2016 to acquire a persistent, ship-based unmanned air system capability, with requirements for up to 76h endurance.