By Jamie Hunter

Northrop Grumman has received Milestone C low-rate initial production (LRIP) approval from the US department of defense (DoD) for its MQ-8B Fire Scout vertical takeoff and landing tactical unmanned air vehicle (VTUAV). The MQ-8B Class IV UAV is based on the RQ-8A VTUAV, the initial version of Fire Scout developed for the US Navy.

The US Navy and Army are exercising a Joint Acquisition strategy of the MQ-8B to maximize commonality between the two services and drive down costs.

The Navy has nine MQ-8Bs on order from Northrop Grumman and operational evaluation is planned for 2008 ahead of initial operating capability (IOC). The earlier incarnation RQ-8A completed the type’s first ship operating trials aboard the USS Nashville in January 2006 and the type will eventually be cleared to operate from all air-capable ships in the US Navy inventory, although the MQ-8B is closely allied to the service’s shaky littoral combat ship (LCS) programme.

The MQ-8B is based on the manned Schweizer 333 helicopter but differs from its RQ-8A predecessor in that it has a four-bladed main rotor, additional sponsons that accommodate more fuel, and a thicker tail boom – all of which means the MQ-8B can achieve its goal of 110nm range and ability to stay on station for 5 hours.
Mike Fugua, Northrop Grumman’s Fire Scout business development manager, told Flight Daily News: “The MQ-8B is the second-generation Fire Scout. Its ties to the Schweizer helicopter mean it offers excellent reliability and maintainability. The MQ-8B has eight-hour endurance and can fly at 125kt.”

It currently carries a 600lb payload that includes the FLIR Systems Brite STAR II forward-looking infra-red (FLIR) and the coastal battlefield reconnaissance and analysis (COBRA) system.

The RQ-8A demonstrated an initial radar and weapons capability with Northrop Grumman’s development test Fire Scout and indeed has fired unguided 2.75in rockets in trials on the Yuma Proving Grounds.

US Navy weapons requirements are likely to be based around the compact very lightweight torpedo, LOGIR (a low cost accuracy enhancement kit for rockets) and the Viper Strike gliding precision attack GPS/laser weapon to potentially engage small attack craft.

The US Army is expecting a first flight of its MQ-8B in November 2010, with IOC planned for 2014. The Army MQ-8B will form a vital airborne node for the networked brigade combat team (BCT) concept, with a modular mission package that will include Northrop Grumman's airborne surveillance and target acquisition minefield detection system (ASTAMIDS) sensor instead of BRITE Star.

Export opportunities for Fire Scout also appear strong, but Northrop Grumman described itself as being at the very start of understanding needs in this market.

Source: Flight Daily News