The Navy recently added $108 million to the budget for MQ-8C Fire Scout helicopter drones, bringing the total buy to 29. The MQ-8C is an autonomous version of the Bell 407 and features a maritime radar for finding enemy surface combatants at sea as well as a rangefinder that allows it to pinpoint target them, according to a June article by IHS Jane's 360. This targeting data can then be fed to friendly ships who can target the enemy with missiles or jet sorties.
An MQ-8C lands aboard the USS Jason Dunham during sea trials in 2014. (Photo courtesy Northrop Grumman)
In the future, the MQ-8C could also be a forward observer for the Navy's highest tech, long range weapons like the electromagnetic railgun and laser systems.
Currently, the Fire Scout boasts no weapons of its own.
The drone is slated to for testing aboard ships in 2017 but the Navy did test it on the USS Jason Dunham in 2014 where it successfully took off and landed 22 times.
The Navy also posted promising reviews of the drone's performance in land-based tests at Naval Base Ventura County, Point Mugu, California. The Fire Scout C-model demonstrated a range of over 150 nautical miles and the ability to remain in flight for approximately 12 hours.
"The C model will greatly impact how we monitor, understand and control the sea and air space around small surface combatants," Navy Capt. Jeffrey Dodge, the program manager for Fire Scout, said in a 2015 press release.
The MQ-8B, the predecessor model to the MQ-8C, has flown over 16,000 hours and has participated in flights with manned helicopters at sea without serious incident.