The upgraded version of the unmanned Fire Scout helicopter completed its first two flights before commencing regular operations next year.
Manufactured by Northrop Grumman and operated by the US Navy, the bigger and more powerful Fire Scout took off from the Naval Base Ventura County at Point Mugu and flew first time for seven minutes inside the restricted airspace around the base to enable operators to validate the autonomous control systems.
During the second flight, the helicopter reached the altitude of 152 metres and stayed in the air for 9 minutes.
"It is a big accomplishment for the integrated government and industry team to fly this air vehicle for the first time," said Capt. Patrick Smith, Fire Scout program manager at Patuxent River. "MQ-8C will require fewer aircraft [than the previous MQ-8B] to operate at maximum performance and will meet the US Africa and Special Operation Commands urgent needs requirement."
Northrop said it has developed the new unmanned helicopter in just one year – a much shorter period than usual in large military projects, fitting it with additional fuel tanks and an upgraded engine.
Based on a larger commercial airframe, the MQ-8C will be able to fly up to 12 hours and carry up to 1,180 kg, Northrop said.
Compared with its predecessor, the MQ-8B, the MQ-8C unmanned aerial vehicle can stay in the air twice as long and carry three times as many sensors and other equipment. These improvement will enable the US Navy to use fewer vehicles.
Retired Admiral Gary Roughead, the former chief of naval operations who authorized operational use of the first Fire Scout two years earlier than planned, welcomed the news about the larger aircraft's first flight.
"Even though we got a lot out of the first Fire Scout, the bigger airplane with the increased attributes is going to be very important," Roughead said.
He said the helicopter could operate from a large number of Navy ships with smaller flight decks, giving commanders greater range and awareness.
The MQ-8Cs will conduct initial shipboard testing on Guided Missile Destroyers (DDG)-class ships but the program is looking into supporting also Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) missions.
Initial operating capability for the MQ-8C is planned for 2016, with a potential for early deployment in 2014.
Unmanned helicopters have been used extensively by US military in Afghanistan since early 2011 to provide surveillance data to ground commanders.