Warplanes: Fire Scout Takes Final Exams


July 29, 2011: So far this year, U.S. Navy MQ-8B Fire Scout helicopter UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle) have flown over a thousand hours. Some 70 percent of that was flown by the six MQ-8Bs sent to Afghanistan last April and May, to provide aerial reconnaissance. Two more Fire Scouts were sent to sea with a frigate in the Mediterranean. One of those Fire Scouts was lost over Libya last month.

All this is an interesting development, as the American military has not had a lot of success with helicopter UAVs. Two years ago, the U.S. Army cancelled its RQ-8B Fire Scout UAV project. It just didn't work out. But for the navy, it's been different.

The navy kept their Fire Scouts, and have developed, and put into use, their own MQ-8B version. The RQ-8B died because the army already had plenty of UAVs that got the job done. The navy kept Fire Scout because helicopters are more practical on most navy ships (for landings and takeoffs.) Navy Fire Scouts has already been successfully tested on frigates (in both the Atlantic and Pacific). Meanwhile, there is a huge demand for UAVs in Afghanistan, so the navy sent what it could.

In Afghanistan, the navy hoped to fly each of the MQ-8Bs a hundred hours a month, but this month that is running to 125 hours. The MQ-8B is still in testing mode, and sending them to sea, and Afghanistan, is a field test. The ones in Afghanistan are undergoing a severe test, as Afghanistan is one of the most harsh environments for helicopters. So far there have been some reliability and communications (between the controller and UAV) problems. But the navy believes these can be fixed, and the readiness levels keep increasing, despite the heavy use.

The 1.5 ton Fire Scout is based upon the Schweitzer 333 unmanned helicopter, which in turn is derived from the Schweitzer 330 commercial lightweight manned helicopter. Fire Scout has a payload of 272 kg (600 pounds), a cruising speed of 200 kilometers, max altitude of 6,100 meters (20,000 feet) and endurance of eight hours. The U.S. Navy currently has eight MQ-8Bs and plans to acquire another 160 of them. The ones in Afghanistan are being operated by contractors.


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