Northrop Grumman MQ-8C Fire Scout. Photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman
Bell Helicopter’s 407 has pursued two paths into the modern, technologically advanced world.
By its manufacturer, the 407 has been transformed into a new variant: the 407GXP. That aircraft has a Rolls-Royce 250-C47B/8 turbine full authority digital engine control (FADEC) engine. It can operate well in hot and high conditions and can cruise at 133 kt. It has traffic information, terrain data, moving maps, Garmin synthetic vision and a Garmin G1000H flight deck, to name a few features.
With the U.S. Navy and contractor Northrop Grumman, the 407 is pioneering autonomous capabilities on vessels and with other helicopters as Fire Scout. The two variants — the original MQ-8B and the larger, newer MQ-8C — have spent 2017 reaching milestones in various demonstrations and tests. Northrop Grumman’s Fire Scout team thinks that 2018 will bring even more successes for the company’s only rotary-wing program.
“One of the things we learned in 2017 with the demos is what an exciting future the Fire Scout program has, with the future capabilities that are planned for 2018,” Melissa Packwood, Northrop Grumman’s Fire Scout program director, told R&WI Wednesday. “The Navy has in the program baseline configuration other planned development activities. And I think that what we really have demonstrated with these activities in 2017 is really just a little bit of insight into what truly can be done with the immense future capabilities of the Fire Scout.”
One of Fire Scout’s most significant achievements this year has been a successful manned-unmanned teaming demonstration. In May, Fire Scout acted as the laser-designating platform for a Hellfire missile, fired from a Sikorsky MH-60S. This exercise took place with the USS America, an amphibious assault ship, and its Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expedition Unit. Fire Scout was equipped with radar and fed information to the manned helicopter as it engaged with a moving surface contact. To Jack Thomas, director of mission engineering for tactical autonomous systems, that exercise exemplifies what the teaming configuration would aim to do.
A Sikorsky MH-60S Seahawk and a Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout conduct flight operations following launch from littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4) in the South China Sea Feb. 2, 2017. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy
“What we see now with manned-unmanned teaming real is a parsing of the mission to the right platform,” Thomas told R&WI. “In this particular case, having the unmanned system do the early stages of the kill chain — the broad area search with the radar that's on board, and then the identification — and then allowing a manned platform to come in and conduct the later stages of the kill chain is really the enabling capability that we see.
“From a rotary-wing perspective, having both manned and the unmanned helicopter stationed on the same ship and operated by the same people is really fundamental to [the Navy] embracing the capability and expanding their mission capability,” he continued.
The demonstration in May also showed for the first time that the Fire Scout could be handed off from one control station to another in the middle of a mission. Fire Scout was launched using a mobile mission control station in Naval Auxiliary Landing Field San Clemente Island. The operators then exchanged controls in flight to operators based at Naval Base Ventura County, Point Mugu. Both are located in California. Fire Scout’s controls were then handed back over to San Clemente upon return. The Navy said this was the “first ever long-range transit of the Fire Scout by an operational squadron.” Both the MQ-8B and MQ-8C participated in these teaming exercises.
In fact, Packwood said the Navy’s USS Coronado (LCS-4) had recently returned from deployment, during which two Fire Scouts and one H-60 were on board. The ship’s mission package is anti-surface warfare. During deployment, the Navy had the opportunity to leverage manned-unmanned teaming between all of those aircraft, she said, with the same team that flies and maintains both aircraft.
Other military programs made moves toward unmanning other aircraft to expand capabilities. In October, the U.S. Army awarded L3 Technologies multiple contracts totaling $97 million to support its Boeing Apache Manned-Unmanend Teaming-eXpanded Capabilities (MUMT-X) helicopter program. Colonel David Walsh, program manager for Naval Air Systems Command’s (Navair) H-1, noted at Navy League’s Sea Air Space event in April that the U.S. Marine Corps sees unmanned capability as a potential part of the H-1’s future. His comment came after a successful U.S. Air Force-Lockheed Martin demonstration that showed an autonomous F-16 could plan and execute air-to-ground strike missions based on mission priorities and available assets, among other goals.
Northrop Grumman also produces the MQ-4C Trident fixed-wing unmanned aircraft system, which performs teaming with the Navy’s Boeing P-8. Thomas said this helps the company stay ahead of the proverbial curve.
“What we are able to do, and one of the ways that we maintain our industry-leading capabilities, is that we have a lot of dialogue,” he said of the Fire Scout and Triton teams. “Both of those program offices at Northrop Grumman are located here in Rancho Bernardo in San Diego and we have a good amount of dialogue back and forth between the two programs.”
In 2018, program progress could show itself in capabilities like Link 16 — an encrypted, jam-resistant, high-capacity tactical digital datalink network used by the joint services and others, internationally as well. Thomas said that Northrop Grumman is working on a demonstration system that would enable Fire Scout to use the datalink for things like collaboration with net-enabled weapons. He added that the Navy has indicated to the company that it intends to incorporate the Link 16 capability into a program of record in three years.
An MQ-8B Firescout unmanned aerial vehicle takes off from the littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4) during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Thailand. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Deven Leigh Ellis
Right now, Fire Scout is with the Navy’s Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 21at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada. Thomas said it is the first time the squadron is operating Fire Scout, using it to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data to the carrier air-wing staff. By first quarter in the U.S., the MQ-8C should be starting integrated operational test and evaluation (IOT&E). In the following months, Northrop Grumman plans to conduct dynamic interface testing.
For the first time, Thomas said, the company would try to expand the operational envelope of the helicopter on board its host ship — both even- and odd-numbered. Sea-based IOT&E would occur around that time, when littoral combat ships become available.
Throughout the year, Northrop Grumman plans to work on incorporating Leonardo’s Osprey active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar system into the MQ-8C. In addition, the company expects more work on the MQ-8B with more deployments come 2018.
“We're going to fly that helicopter in amazing new ways that it's never been flown. I mean, flying sustained at 16,000 feet, as an example, for 12 hours is just an area that rotary-wing operators are completely unfamiliar with because they've never had that ability in the past,” Thomas said. “It's already a game-changing platform, even though it's an existing commercial airframe. Once you place the autonomy inside of it and you take the human crew out, you're actually able to do significantly more with that existing pipeline.”