The Navy has operated helicopters from ships for a long time — and as early as the 1960s, they briefly operated a drone helicopter. Now, new robot helicopters may soon join the fleet. The MQ-8C Fire Scout completed its first round of initial operational tests and evaluations in June 2018 and could soon see service.
Currently, the Navy operates the MQ-8B Fire Scout, which has been in operational service since 2009. This unmanned helicopter can remain airborne for roughly five and a half hours and has a top speed of 85 knots. In 2010, this system made a drug bust while conducting testing aboard the Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided missile frigate USS McInerney (FFG 8).
The new system, the MQ-8C, is larger, based on the Bell 407 helicopter. This boosts its deliverable payload by two-thirds (up to 1,000 pounds from 600). It also features a substantial boost in range and endurance, according to the U.S. Navy. Its top speed of 135 knots leaves the MQ-8B in the figurative dust.
Tale of the tape between MQ-8B and MQ-8C.
The primary purpose of the MQ-8 series helicopters is to carry out Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions. The Fire Scout is equipped with electro-optical and infrared sensors and a laser designator. Some also have received radars capable of tracking targets as far as 50 miles away. This advanced equipment allows the Fire Scout to locate, track, and designate targets, providing accurate targeting data to ships and aircraft, and perform post-strike assessments on targets without risking human lives.
A MQ-8B lands on USS McInerney during its evaluation, during which it made a drug bust.
Although it's looking to be the best iteration yet, the MQ-8C isn't the first drone helicopter to be used for these types of missions. During the Vietnam War, the QH-50 Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter (DASH) was used to handle gunfire spotting. It served a total of six years and lasted eight years more in the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.
The MQ-8 series, though, is proving to be an extremely versatile, effective piece of technology that'll likely be around for a long time.