A next-generation unmanned helicopter recently completed flight testing at Naval Base Ventura County in Point Mugu, Calif. The MQ-8C Fire Scout took off and flew for 7 min. in restricted airspace in order to validate its autonomous control systems. In a second flight test, which lasted for 9 min., the aircraft flew in a pattern around the airfield, reaching an altitude of 500 ft.

The tests were successfully completed as part of an endurance upgrade before the system is used in operation next year. Upgrades to the MQ-8C make it possible for it to fly twice as long with three times the payload capacity of the current MQ-8B design. Specifically, the new design will allow the Fire Scout to fly up to 12 hrs. or carry up to 2600 lbs. That design is based on a larger commercial airframe with additional fuel tanks and an upgraded engine. It aims to combine the best features of the previous model with the extended range, payload, and cargo hauling capabilities of the FAA-certified Bell 407 helicopter. The MQ-8C has a maximum speed of 140 knots and is 41.4 feet in length, 7.8 feet in width, and 10.9 feet in height.

The helicopter can identify targets and distribute real-time information to various users using on-board sensors, which are capable of capturing full-motion video. This allows ship-based commanders to maintain awareness of a certain area or keep an eye on a target for long periods of time. The previous generation of the helicopter, the MQ-8B, is currently on its seventh at-sea deployment supporting Navy frigates. Since 2011, it has been used extensively in Afghanistan to provide airborne surveillance to ground commanders.