The Navy has taken delivery of the first of a planned two Northrop Grumman MQ-8C Fire Scouts test vehicles at Naval Air Station Point Mugu, Calif. last week, Navy and Northrop officials told USNI News on Monday.
The MQ-8C — dubbed Fire-X by Northrop — is the next evolutionary step of the Navy’s rotary-wing unmanned aerial vehicle program following the 2012 cancellation of the Medium Range Maritime Unmanned Aerial System (MRMUAS) program.
The Navy will now begin to developmental testing of two the aircraft at Point Mugu beginning this summer with an anticipated first flight in September or October, a Navy official told USNI News on Monday.
In 2012, Northrop won a $262.3 million contract to provide the Navy with the two test vehicles and six destined for operational use. In April, it one a second $71 million award for six additional aircraft for a total of 14.
The aircraft are based off of the frame of the Bell-Textron Bell 407 commercial helicopter, built in Mirabel, Quebec, and extensively modified at a Northrop Grumman facility in Alabama.
In Alabama, Northrop adds the Fire Scout guidance systems, extra fuel tanks and sensors on the airframe, a Northrop official told USNI News on Monday.
Though the airframe of the MQ-8C appears wildly different from the current Fire Scout, it operates with the same set of ground controls, sensors and 97 percent of the same software as the MQ-8B, according to Northrop.
Based on the Fire-X design, the MQ-8C has a planned range of 1227 nautical miles with a maximum speed of 140 kts, a maximum endurance of 15 hours and a payload capacity of 3,200 pounds — double that of the current version.
In contrast, the 14 existing MQ-8Bs have a maximum speed of 100 kts with a range of 618 nautical miles and an eight-hour endurance time. There are also Navy plans to arm Fire Scout with the 70 mm Advanced Precision kill Weapon System.
The Navy has said it wants up to deploy MQ-8Cs by the end of 2014.
Four MQ-8Bs are currently in the third month of a half-year deployment on the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) and the aircraft have been operating in Northern Afghanistan since 2011.