Northop's new Fire Scout unmanned helicopter takes flight

Reuters

By Andrea Shalal-Esa

WASHINGTON, Oct 31 (Reuters) - A larger and more powerfulversion of Northrop Grumman Corp's Fire Scout unmannedhelicopter made its first two flights on Thursday, the U.S. Navysaid as it plans to start using the new aircraft next year.

The MQ-8C Fire Scout took off and flew for 7 minutes in itsfirst flight at Naval Base Ventura County in Point Mugu,California, the Navy and Northrop said in news releases. Itreached an altitude of 500 feet (152 meters) and flew 9 minutesduring a second flight.

Northrop said it had developed the new Fire Scout in justone year, much faster than normally seen in U.S. weaponsprograms.

"It is a big accomplishment for the integrated governmentand industry team to fly this air vehicle for the first time,"Captain Patrick Smith, the Navy's Fire Scout program manager,said in a release issued by the Navy.

He said the Navy would need fewer of the new surveillancehelicopters since they had a longer range and could stayairborne longer. He said that would help meet urgent needsspelled out by the U.S. Africa and Special Operation commands.

Northrop said the new version of the Fire Scout was designedto fly twice as long and carry three times as many sensors andother equipment as the current MQ-8B variant, which is on itsseventh at-sea deployment for the Navy, supporting antipiracymissions on board Navy frigates.

The unmanned helicopter has also been used extensively inAfghanistan since early 2011 to provide surveillance data toground commanders.

Retired Admiral Gary Roughead, the former chief of navaloperations who authorized operational use of the first FireScout two years earlier than planned, welcomed news about thelarger aircraft's first flight.

"Even though we got a lot out of the first Fire Scout, thebigger airplane with the increased attributes is going to bevery important," Roughead said.

He said the helicopter could operate from a large number ofNavy ships with smaller flight decks, giving commanders greaterrange and awareness.

Based on a larger commercial airframe with additional fueltanks and an upgraded engine, the MQ-8C will be able to fly upto 12 hours or carry up to 2,600 pounds (1,180 kg), Northropsaid.

George Vardoulakis, Northrop Grumman's vice president formedium-range tactical systems, said Northrop developed a biggerversion of the Fire Scout after Navy operators asked for asystem that could fly longer and carry more sensors.

"Changing out the airframe, installing control systems andavionics, and then conducting a first flight of the system in ayear is truly remarkable," Vardoulakis said.

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