By Guy Norris in Los Angeles

Seemingly doomed UAV continues resurgence with USN contract modification

Northrop Grumman is moving in­to the final stages of systems development and demonstration (SDD) of the MQ-8B Fire Scout vertical take-off and landing tactical unmanned air vehicle (VTUAV) after winning a $136 million modi­fication to an earlier US Navy contract.

The contract comes as Northrop works towards first flight of the enhanced MQ-8B variant in early December, and is seen as another positive indicator for the once seemingly doomed UAV. "The plan is to do nine SDD development MQ-8B Fire Scouts for the navy, and after that to go into low-rate initial production," says VTUAV programme director Doug Fronius.

Northrop Grumman MQ-8B W445
© Northrop Grumman 

 Northrop is set to fly the enhanced MQ-8B variant in December

"In January 2006 four of the nine were under contract and now seven of the nine are under contract. We still also have eight planned for the US Army," adds Fronius, referring to the version selected by the US Army for its Future Combat System Class IV brigade-level UAV. The SDD phase is due to run through to August 2008, with initial operational capability later that year.

The company, which expects final funding for the last two US Navy VTUAVs later this year, therefore expects to build 17 -8Bs under the current phase before moving into production. Northrop has continued to use the initial RQ-8A variants for development and further testing work in the run-up to the start of the MQ-8B flight tests. "The As have been flying extremely reliably over the last year, but the B has so much added fuel and payload capability it is almost like a different version," says Fronius.

The MQ-8B is based on the four-bladed Schweitzer 333 civil helicopter. Compared with the initial three-bladed -8A version, which was designed to carry a baseline payload including electro-optical/infrared sensors and a laser rangefinder, the -8B can additionally carry weapons such as Hellfire missiles and 70mm Hydra rockets, synthetic aperture radar and even a communications node. The newer version also has an on-station endurance of more than 4h, or double that of the initial variant.

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Source: Flight International