Northrop Grumman received a contract from the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command (Navair) to build the MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter based on the Bell 407 airframe. The contract, announced April 23, has a not-to-exceed cost ceiling of $262 million for two demonstration and six production MQ-8Cs. Overall, 28 aircraft are sought to meet an urgent requirement of the Special Operations Command by 2014.
The MQ-8C will be larger and have greater range, endurance and payload capacity than the current Northrop Grumman MQ-8B, based on the Sikorsky-Schweizer 333 helicopter. Northrop Grumman and Bell Helicopter started developing the larger variant, then called Fire-X, in early 2010. It was initially aimed at the Navy’s medium-range maritime unmanned air system (MRUAS) which has now been cancelled. The aircraft achieved its first fully autonomous flight in December 2010 at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz. At the time, Northrop Grumman said the Fire-X was capable of carrying a useful load of 3,200 pounds with mission endurance up to 16 hours. The Navy’s specifications for the MQ-8B list a payload capacity of 600 pounds and range of 110 nm with five hours on station.
Final assembly of the MQ-8C will be completed at Northrop Grumman’s Unmanned Systems Center in Moss Point, Miss. “Through our company-funded Fire-X demonstration effort we proved that using the mature unmanned systems architecture developed for the MQ-8B Fire Scout paired with the Bell 407 helicopter would provide greater capability efficiently and affordably,” said Duke Dufresne, Northrop Grumman general manager for unmanned systems. “By using systems that have many years of development already invested in them we can meet the Navy’s needs quickly.”
Navair awarded the contract as it continued to investigate the April 6 crash of an MQ-8B Fire Scout in Afghanistan and a March 30 ditching at sea. The incidents led the Navy to suspend Fire Scout operations. “We’re working closely with the Navy in their investigations [of] those incidents to really make sure we’ve got down the root cause,” Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush said April 25 during the company’s first-quarter conference call. “The Navy recently stated that it does not believe there are any systemic issues,” he continued.