The U.S. Navy has selected an Italian Osprey AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar for its MQ-8C Fire Scout helicopter UAV. The Osprey radar is lightweight (50 kg/110 pounds) and uses small flat panels on the sides of the aircraft instead of a rotating radar in a dome underneath the aircraft. The three flat panels give the Osprey radar 360 degree coverage. Osprey is more reliable because it has no moving parts at all.
Since the 1990s AESA radars have become standard for most new aircraft and upgrades for older aircraft. As AESA systems have gotten smaller are lighter they are showing up more often in UAVs. AESA is more reliable and, increasingly, no more expensive than the older mechanical (a small dish that moves around inside a dome) radar. AESA is also easier and cheaper to maintain, which makes a more expensive AESA cheaper, over its lifetime, than a cheaper (to buy) mechanically scanned radar.
AESA type radars have been around a long time, popular mainly for their ability deal with lots of targets simultaneously, and produce a more accurate picture of what is out there. But AESA was also a lot more expensive, and less reliable, than older radar technologies. That has gradually changed. And now more uses are being found for AESA, which has developed into more than just an improved radar. AESA radar consists of thousands of tiny radars that can be independently aimed in different directions. An AESA radar made the E-8 JSTARS aircraft possible, as it enabled it to locate vehicles moving on the ground. A new, smaller MP-RTIP AESA radar for the RQ-4 UAV can also spot smaller objects on the ground. As a result, with the RQ-4 UAV equipped with AESA, the U.S. Air Force has a choice between extending the life of the E-8 aircraft or replacing them with the UAVs.
The MQ-8C made its first flight in October 2013 after it was quickly created by having the mechanical and software components (that make a manned helicopter into a UAV) from an existing MQ-8B Fire Scout installed in the larger Bell 407 helicopter. As a result the 1.4 ton MQ-8B Fire Scout becomes the 2.7 ton MQ-8C. The navy is buying up to 96 MQ-8Cs and the first of these enters service in 2016. Max endurance of the 8C is 12 hours and max payload is 1.3 tons.
MQ-8C was ready so quickly because it is using a lot of the MQ-8B technology. While the military has been slow to adopt helicopter UAVs, there is sufficient interest to keep the manufacturers at work on new models. The navy kept Fire Scout when the army dropped it because helicopters are more practical on most navy ships (for landings and takeoffs). Navy Fire Scouts have completed months of successful use on a frigate (in both the Atlantic and Pacific) and were also in action over Libya and Afghanistan. However, the small size of the MQ-8B has limited its usefulness and proved to be more prone to wear and tear (resulting in more time spent on maintenance and less time ready for action). Note that the standard manned helicopter for ships is the ten ton SH-60 Seahawk. When flying at sea and operating off the back of a warship size does matter, and that’s the main reason for the MQ-8C.
Since it entered service in 2009, the MQ-8Bs have spent over 12,000 hours in the air. The time in Afghanistan was valuable not just for getting more air time but also working out any problems encountered while flying in a hostile land environment. The U.S. Navy has been equipping frigates and destroyers with one or two MQ-8Bs. The navy currently has 30 MQ-8Bs.
The 1.4 ton MQ-8B is based on the 1.5 ton Schweitzer 330 manned helicopter. The MQ-8B can carry 90 kg (200 pounds) of sensors and weapons. It has an endurance of 8 hours and a cruise speed of 200 kilometers an hour. The MQ-8B can carry the Griffin (a 16 kg/35 pound guided missile with a range of 8,000 meters) and the 11.4 kg (25 pound) 70mm guided missile (based on the World War II era 70mm unguided rocket) with a range of 6,000 meters. The MQ-8C can carry heavier weapons, like the 48.2 kg (106 pounds) Hellfire missile.