Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout

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MQ-8 Fire Scout
A US Navy MQ-8B with the BRITE Star II electro-optical/infrared payload at Webster Field, NAS Patuxent River, Maryland
Role UAV helicopter
Manufacturer Northrop Grumman
First flight 2002
Introduction 2009 (MQ-8B)[1]
Status MQ-8B: active service
MQ-8C: flight testing
Primary user United States Navy
Number built 30 (MQ-8B)[1]
Unit cost
US$18.2 million in FY 2013 (flyaway cost)[2]
Developed from Schweizer 330 and 333
Developed into Sikorsky S-434

The Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout is an unmanned autonomous helicopter developed by Northrop Grumman for use by the United States Armed Forces.[3] The Fire Scout is designed to provide reconnaissance, situational awareness, aerial fire support and precision targeting support for ground, air and sea forces. The initial RQ-8A version was based on the Schweizer 330, while the enhanced MQ-8B was derived from the Schweizer 333. The larger MQ-8C variant is based on the Bell 407.

Design and development[edit]


As the US Navy was withdrawing its RQ-2 Pioneers from service, it began to seek a second generation UAV. The Navy requirement specified a vertical takeoff & landing (VTOL) aircraft, with a payload capacity of 90 kg (200 lb), a range of 125 miles (200 km), an endurance on station of three hours at an altitude of 20,000 feet (6,100 m), and the ability to land on a ship in a 46 km/h (29 mph) wind. The UAV was to fly 190 hours before planned maintenance.

There were three finalists in the competition, which was designated "VTOL-UAV" or "VTUAV". Bell, Sikorsky, and a collaboration of Teledyne Ryan and Schweizer Aircraft submitted designs. The Ryan-Schweizer UAV was selected as the winner in the spring of 2000. The RQ-8A Fire Scout, as it was named, was a derivative of the Schweizer three-passenger, turbine powered 330SP helicopter, with a new fuselage, new fuel system, and UAV electronics and sensors.

The initial prototype of the Fire Scout was piloted in initial tests, flying autonomously for the first time in January 2000. The Rolls-Royce 250-C20 turbine engine ran on JP-8 and JP-5 jet fuel (the latter of which has a higher flashpoint and is considered safe for shipboard storage and use).

The Fire Scout was to be fitted with a sensor ball turret that carries electro-optic and infrared cameras, and a laser range finder. It was to be controlled over a data link derived from the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV, operating over a line of sight to a distance of 172 miles (280 km). The control system was to be fitted onto a ship, or could be carried on a Humvee light vehicle for US Marine service.


Although progress on the project had been regarded as satisfactory, the Navy decided the Fire Scout didn't meet their needs after all, and cut funding for production in December 2001. However, the development program continued, and Northrop Grumman pitched a range of improved configurations to anyone who was interested. As it turned out, the U.S. Army was very interested, awarding a contract for seven improved RQ-8B evaluation machines in late 2003. In 2006, it was redesignated MQ-8B.

The MQ-8B features a four-blade main rotor, in contrast to the larger-diameter three-blade rotor of the RQ-8A, to reduce noise and improve lift capacity and performance. The four-blade rotor had already been evaluated on Fire Scout prototypes. They boost gross takeoff weight by 500 lb to 3,150 lb (by 225 kg to 1,430 kg), with payloads of up to 700 lb (320 kg) for short-range missions. The MQ-8B is fitted with stub wings which serve both an aerodynamic purpose as well as an armament carriage location. Weapons to be carried include Hellfire missiles, Viper Strike laser-guided glide weapons, and, in particular, pods carrying the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS), a laser-guided 70 mm (2.75 in) folding-fin rocket, which the Army saw as ideal for the modern battlefield. The Army was also interested in using the Fire Scout to carry up to 200 lb (90 kg) of emergency supplies to troops in the field.

MQ-8B Fire Scout at the RIAT

The MQ-8B is being modified to permit rapid swap out of payload configurations. The current sensor configuration of a day/night turret with a laser target designator will remain an option. Alternate sensor payloads in consideration include a TSAR with Moving Target Indicator (MTI) capability, a multispectral sensor, a SIGINT module, the Target Acquisition Minefield Detection System (ASTAMIDS), and the Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL). The Army wanted the Fire Scout to operate as an element of an integrated ground sensor network as well.

In April 2006, production started on the flight test airframes was initiated at Northrop Grumman's Unmanned Systems production plant in Moss Point, Mississippi. The first flight of the MQ-8B took place on 18 December 2006 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River. The Army interest revived Navy interest in the program, with the Navy ordering eight Sea Scout MQ-8B derivatives for evaluation. In January 2010, the Army terminated its involvement with the Fire Scout, contending that the RQ-7 Shadow UAV could meet the Army's needs.[4] In 2009, the Navy approved low-rate initial production.[5]

The MQ-8B complements the manned aviation detachments onboard Air Capable ships and is deployed along with either an SH-60B HSL/HSM detachment or a MH-60S HSC detachment. With the planned addition of RADAR, AIS, and weapons, the MQ-8B will provide many of the capabilities currently provided by the SH-60B. It will give the ship and embarked air detachment greater flexibility in meeting mission demands, and will free manned aircraft for those missions.[citation needed]

Northrop Grumman started work outfitting the MQ-8B with a weapons system, the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System laser-guided 70 mm rocket. The corporation developed and delivered the equipment needed to control the weapons system under a $17 million contract awarded to the company 23 September 2011 by Naval Air Systems Command. Final delivery of an operational weapons system was expected by March 2013.[6] By August 2013, the MQ-8B had completed 11 of 12 APWKS launches, with testing to be completed "shortly."[7]

On 30 December 2012, the Navy issued an urgent order to install RDR-1700 maritime-surveillance radars on nine MQ-8B Fire Scouts, to be completed by the end of 2013. The radar system consists of the X-band synthetic aperture radar and a modified radome, mounted underneath the helicopter for 360-degree coverage; it is interfaced with the UAV and its control station. Detailed range is out to 25 km (16 mi), with a max range of 80 km (50 mi). The RDR-1700 can see through clouds and sandstorms and can perform terrain mapping or weather detection, and track 20 air or surface targets; a target-marker can be used to determine a target's range, bearing, and velocity. Radar-equipped MQ-8B UAVs could be useful in the Persian Gulf for tracking small Iranian vessels, or the Gulf of Aden for locating Somali pirates.[8][9] In January 2013, the Navy awarded a $33 million contract to Telephonics for the RDR-1700B+ radar. The radar system is designated AN/ZPY-4(V)1 and provides a wide-area search and long-range imaging capability to supplement the FLIR Systems Brite Star II electro-optical/infrared payload. Northrop Grumman was scheduled to complete radar flight testing in May 2014, with spares kits delivered by the next month.[10] The radar gives the Fire Scout a beyond the horizon broad area search and track capability to track up to 200 targets. It weighs 34 kg (75 lb) and operates in surface search, terrain mapping, emergency beacon detection, and weather avoidance modes. It was first demonstrated on an MQ-8B on 7 May 2014, and will be deployed with one aboard the USS Fort Worth (LCS-3) in 2015.[11]

In 2017, the MQ-8B will receive a mine-detection sensor for use in littoral waters called the Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis (COBRA). The COBRA is designed to detect naval mines at a safe distance from a Littoral Combat Ship operating in coastal waters, and also has the capability to locate submarines through acoustic detection if they are on or near the surface.[12] COBRA takes the place of the Fire Scout's usual EO/IR sensor.[13]


Size and performance differences between the two Fire Scout drones.

On 3 May 2010, Northrop announced plans to fly a Bell 407 helicopter modified with autonomous controls from the MQ-8B. Named Fire-X, it was to demonstrate an unmanned cargo resupply capability to the US Navy.[14] The unmanned Fire-X completed its first flight at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona on 20 December 2010.[15] On 23 April 2012, Northrop received a $262.3 million contract from the Navy to build the newly designated MQ-8C Fire Scout; the work included two developmental aircraft and six low-rate production aircraft initially. The Navy wants 28 MQ-8Cs for naval special operations forces.[16] In March 2013, the Navy incorporated the Rolls-Royce 250-C47E into the MQ-8C for a 5 percent increase in "hot and high" power, 2 percent reduced fuel consumption, 8 percent increase in rated takeoff power, and better reliability.[17] The Bell 407-based MQ-8C has an endurance of 12 hours, a range of 150 nmi (170 mi; 280 km), and a payload capacity of about 318 kg (701 lb);[18] it has twice the endurance and three times the payload as the MQ-8B.[1]

In early July 2013, Northrop Grumman delivered the first MQ-8C to the Navy. Ground testing was done to ensure that the systems worked properly and communicated with the ground control station prior to conducting the first flight. The MQ-8C shares software, avionics, payloads, and ship ancillary equipment with the MQ-8B, while the upgraded airframe provides double the endurance and three times the payload.[19] The MQ-8C was expected to fly in early October 2013, and be deployed in late 2014. The APKWS II will be added to the C-model sometime after 2016.[7] Initial at-sea tests were to be performed aboard the destroyer Jason Dunham in 2014.[20] On 24 September 2013, the MQ-8C Fire-X delivered to the Navy turned on its engines for 10 minutes in preparation for first flight. A second MQ-8C was to be delivered on 30 September. First flight was scheduled for early to mid-October, although the exact date was not determined, as such tests are often delayed by minor system problems. The MQ-8C flight test regime is to last six months.[21]

The MQ-8C Fire Scout first flew on 31 October 2013. It flew for 7 minutes in restricted airspace using autonomous controls at Naval Base Ventura County. It flew a second time hours later that day to an altitude of 500 ft. The MQ-8C was jointly operated by Northrop Grumman and the Navy.[22] Northrop Grumman delivered the second MQ-8C on 25 November 2013. They are under contract to build 14 helicopters.[23] The second MQ-8C flew on 12 February 2014. The aircraft had flown 66 hours by February 2014.[24] On 10 March 2014, the MQ-8C reached 100 flight hours.[25] 19 C-model Fire Scouts are on order with two in flight testing;[26] the first deployment on an LCS is scheduled for 2015.[27] The MQ-8C began testing aboard the Jason Dunham on 16 December 2014, executing 22 landings and recoveries in less than four hours.[13] Testing was completed on 19 December, executing 32 takeoffs and recoveries over three flights.[1][28]

Northrop Grumman flew the MQ-8C demonstrator installed with their AN/ZPY-1 STARLite Radar, although there was no requirement for an MQ-8C radar at the time;[10] the Navy began seeking information for a radar for the MQ-8C in July 2014 with surface search, synthetic aperture radar, inverse SAR, and weather mode capabilities.[29] A request for proposals (RFP) for a radar for the MQ-8C is expected to be released in early 2015. Although the AN/ZPY-4 has been installed on some B-model Fire Scouts, the larger C-model can accommodate a larger and more powerful radar.[30] The MQ-8C will be ready to perform surface warfare missions in 2018 and mine countermeasure missions in 2020.[31]

Operational history[edit]

An RQ-8A prepares for the first autonomous landing aboard the USS Nashville (LPD-13) during sea trials, 2006.

In January 2006, an RQ-8A Fire Scout landed aboard the amphibious transport ship Nashville while it was steaming off the coast of Maryland near the Patuxent River. This marked the first time an unmanned helicopter has landed autonomously aboard a moving U.S. Navy ship without a pilot controlling the aircraft.[32][33][34] Nashville was maneuvering as fast as 17 mph (27 km/h) in the tests.

A total of 24 MQ-8Bs are to be deployed on the Navy's Littoral Combat Ships from 2014 onwards.[7] The Fire Scout significantly contributes to the LCS's primary mission roles of anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare and mine warfare. The ship's modular nature is complemented by the Fire Scout's own modular mission payloads. Due to changes in the LCS development schedule, the Navy conducted the Fire Scout Operational Evaluation (OpEval) aboard the frigate McInerney.[35] On 10 December 2008, the Fire Scout first embarked aboard McInerney while in port for operational fit checks and ship integration testing .[36] The Navy conducted Technical Evaluation on the Fire Scout on McInerney in late 2008 and Operational Evaluation in mid 2009. The Fire Scout was to reach Initial Operating Capability soon after the evaluation.[37]

Flight tests of the Fire Scout took place in May 2009, these tests in areas of shipboard deck motion and wind envelope expansion and landings, including the use of the grid and harpoon system. During five days of testing, the ship/aircraft team compiled 19 flight hours during 12 flights, which included 54 landings, 37 of which were into the NATO standard grid.[36] In September 2009, the Navy announced the first deployment of the MQ-8B aboard McInerney.[38] On 3 April 2010, an MQ-8 from McInerney detected a speedboat and a support vessel engaged in smuggling cocaine in the Eastern Pacific, allowing the ship to confiscate 60 kg of cocaine and detain multiple suspects.[39]

On 2 August 2010, an MQ-8 became unresponsive to commands during testing and entered restricted airspace around Washington, D.C.[40][41]

An MQ-8B is maintained at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.

In May 2011, three MQ-8s were deployed to northern Afghanistan for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) purposes.[42] During the 2011 military intervention in Libya, several Fire Scouts were operated onboard the Halyburton by HSL-42 Squadron as part of Operation Unified Protector.[43] On 21 June 2011, a MQ-8 from Halyburton was shot down by pro-Gaddaffi forces during a reconnaissance mission.[44][45]

The U.S. Navy briefly grounded the MQ-8B after two aircraft crashed within a week. In the first incident, a Fire Scout reportedly crashed off the coast of Africa on 30 March after it was unable to land on the frigate Simpson following a surveillance mission. On 6 April 2012, another Fire Scout crashed in Afghanistan.[46] An investigation into the crash in Afghanistan determined the cause was a faulty navigation system. The cause of the crash near Simpson remained less clear, tougher maintenance procedures were put in place to prevent faulty aircraft from going on-mission. The Fire Scout was back flying over Afghanistan by May, and returned to sea-based ISR "anti-piracy" operations by August.[47]

On 1 December 2012, Klakring returned from a five-month deployment supporting anti-piracy operations for the U.S. Africa Command. The Navy's fourth Fire Scout detachment logged over 500 flight hours and regularly maintained 12-hour days on station, switching to provide continuous support. One Fire Scout set a single-day record, providing ISR coverage for a 24-hour period in September 2012 over the course of 10 flights.[48] On 31 March 2013, an MQ-8B deployed on Robert G. Bradley completed its 600th deployed flight hour, during the Fire Scout's fifth sea-based deployment. It was the first time a Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC-22) deployed with a Fire Scout; previous deployments were conducted by the Helicopter Maritime Strike community. Between 2006 and 2013, the Fire Scout flew over 8,000 hours, over half in real-world operations.[49] In June 2013, Helicopter Strike Maritime Squadron (HSM) 46, Det. 9 surpassed the MQ-8B's monthly flight record at sea aboard Samuel B. Roberts, flying for 333 flight hours during the helicopter's sixth deployment.[50]

In August 2013, the MQ-8B surpassed 5,000 flight hours in Afghanistan. In 28 months, Fire Scouts had accumulated 5,084 hours providing critical surveillance for U.S. and allied forces. Combined with testing and six at-sea deployments, the helicopter has over 10,000 flight hours supporting naval and ground forces.[51] In late 2013, the Fire Scout ended its Afghanistan deployment mission and were shipped back to the US. MQ-8Bs will still be deployed on Naval frigates, and be integrated onto Littoral Combat Ships. The Navy also ordered the Telephonics AN/ZPY-4 radar to expand surveillance capabilities. Twelve radars, including three spares, will be delivered by December 2014. The Navy will buy a total of 96 MQ-8B/C Fire Scouts.[20]

From 25 April-16 May 2014, the USS Freedom (LCS-1) conducted the future concept of operations (CONOPS) for manned and unmanned helicopters aboard littoral combat ships. Operations had the manned MH-60R working together with the unmanned MQ-8B. The demonstration included one MH-60R and one MQ-8B flying with the surface warfare (SUW) mission package installed, intended to provide fleet protection against small boats and asymmetric threats. The tests were to demonstrate manned and unmanned helicopter capabilities before their initial deployment together,[52] which set sail on 14 November 2014.[53]

On 5 December 2014, a Navy MQ-8B successfully flew off of a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, the USCGC Bertholf (WMSL-750), for the first time. The Fire Scout was controlled from a control station located on the Bertholf. The Coast Guard intends to use the results of the demonstration to inform decisions on acquiring a UAS to enhance persistent maritime surveillance capabilities while lowering operational costs.[54]


An RQ-8A Fire Scout takes off at the Webster Field Annex of NAS Patuxent River in 2005.
Version has an 8-hour endurance with a 170 lb payload.[55]
Improved variant using avionics from the MQ-8B into the larger Bell 407 airframe. It has a 14 hr endurance with 600-700 lb in payload.[56]


 United States

Specifications (MQ-8B)[edit]

MQ-8 on static display showing Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System rocket pods

Data from Northrop Grumman,[58] NAVAIR[57]

General characteristics


See also[edit]

Related development
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era
Related lists


  1. ^ a b c d Northrop Grumman MQ-8C Fire Scout VTOL UAV completes first ship-based test period with US Navy -, 23 December 2014
  2. ^ MQ-8 Fire Scout (MQ-8B/C).
  3. ^ "Autonomous Fire Scout UAV Lands on Ship". Department of Defense. January 24, 2006. Retrieved 2008-02-01. 
  4. ^ Army to end robotic vehicle, aircraft efforts
  5. ^ Navy awards 3rd LRIP contract
  6. ^ Eshel, Noam. "Arming the Fire Scout – U.S. to Arm the MQ-8B with APKWS Guided Rockets." Defense Update, 9 November 2011.
  7. ^ a b c Northrop close to completing Firescout weapon tests -, 14 August 2013
  8. ^ Robochoppers Turned Into Maritime Recon Aircraft -, January 18, 2013
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  10. ^ a b Surveillance Radar Selected for Unmanned MQ-8B Fire Scouts -, 25 January 2013
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This article contains material that originally came from the web article Unmanned Aerial Vehicles by Greg Goebel, which exists in the Public Domain.

External links[edit]