The Charlie Takes Off

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By George Jagels

As the only DoD Program of Record for unmanned vertical takeoff and landing, and one tied to a major but downsizing Navy acquisition project, the Littoral Combat Ship, the Fire Scout is under quite a bit of performance and budgetary pressure. The Navy has purchased 17 of the new MQ-8C variant, but zeroed out acquisition from 2014-2019 in its most recent budget request.

Admiral Mathias Winter, the Navy’s Program Executive Officer for Unmanned Strike Weapons, said that his service’s budget still requests procurement funding for ground control stations (GCSs) and other essential equipment to operate the C variant. “The reason you see zero quantities in [the budget] is because with the 23 MQ-8Bs and 17 MQ-8Cs we already purchased, based on LCS deployments that is enough air vehicles for now,” he said. An LCS can hold two MQ-8Cs and an MH-60S Seahawk.

This alignment of deployments slows down but will not kill the Fire Scout, which is made by Northrop Grumman (NGC). Based on a recent DoD acquisition summary report, the Navy still plans on purchasing 126 total Fire Scouts of both variants, at a cost of approximately $27.5 million per aircraft.

The recent endurance upgrade, the MQ-8C, began testing at Point Mugu, CA, on 31 October 2013, and as of 18 April 2014, two EMD aircraft have flown over 130 hours. Thomas Twomey, manager of business development for Fire Scout at NGC, told this magazine that the Charlie is almost done with envelope expansion. “We’ve had an absolutely phenomenal test program and have used the same software load as day one with very few glitches,” he said. The first production aircraft will be delivered in May, and the system will be tested at sea in July.

Though the program has sustained significant cost overruns based on 2006 projections, the latest Fire Scout offers substantial capability to Special Operations Forces and the Navy. Twomey noted that the decrease in procurement is partly a result of increased capabilities.

Sharing about 90 percent of its equipment with the Bravo, MQ-8C can fly longer—12-hour endurance—and carry more—three times the payload capacity. According to Twomey, the Bell 407 airframe was chosen after an exhaustive review of all available rotorcraft, and was selected partly due to its very active production line, which might help NGC with costs as the Navy decreases acquisition.

Comparison

Courtesy of NAVAIR

Some components were upgraded: The Charlie has a more reliable, cheaper GPS/INS; ice detection equipment; and a vibration monitoring system to determine fatigue and maintenance cycles.

To work in the surface, mine, and anti-submarine warfare mission areas, the MQ-8C carries a maritime radar built by Telephonics, a Cobra Ball for shallow mine detection (by BAE), and can act as a relay for sonar buoys. FLIR’s Brite Star II serves as the EO/IR camera. The Charlie is sensor agnostic, and Twomey noted that there is money in the FY 15 budget to test whether some of these systems need to be upgraded moving forward.

In the future, NGC and the Navy have discussed adding small weapons such as torpedoes and missiles to the aircraft as well as lightweight sonar buoys and signals intelligence hardware. The manned Bell 407 can carry a variety of armaments with pylons that can be installed on the sides to add a thousand pounds of payload. The MQ-8C could follow suit. Pylons are very diverse, Twomey said, “the only limits [to payload] are weight, imagination, and money.”

An advantage of being tightly integrated with the LCS is that new specialized personnel are not required to operate the Fire Scout. Helicopter pilots—who team with a mission payload operator—can be trained in four weeks to fly the fully autonomous MQ-8C.

Built into the ship, the GCS is only four small screens and a keyboard and mouse. Actions such as takeoff, hovering, and flying are done with a “click.” “Everything is autonomous,” Twomey said. “Everything is pre-programmed, but it never gets used that way because in a tactical environment you have to improvise. But it does have the ability to go out on its own, collect data, and land without anyone touching anything.”

Top photo caption: An MQ-8C Fire Scout, the Navy’s newest variant of the unmanned helicopter, takes off Oct. 31 from Naval Base Ventura County at Point Mugu, CA. The unmanned aerial vehicle completed its first flight event reaching an altitude of 500 feet. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman/Released)

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of Unmanned Tech Solutions.