The U.S. Navy has completed testing its AN/DVS-1 COBRA (Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis). This multi-sensor scanner is carried on an MQ-8B Fire Scout UAV. COBRA can be used day or night to scan a beach for mines or other obstacles that troops landing might encounter. There is a second COBRA component on the ship COBRA operates from the processes the data from COBRA in real time and provides the UAV operator with where to continue, or repeat, the search. COBRA works because airborne sensors have become smaller, lighter and more powerful and thus light enough to be carried on an MQ-8B. The COBRA component on the UAV is a stabilized (gimbal mounted) sensor that can detect several different wavelengths. Details of the sensor were not revealed as this would make it easier for a potential enemy to build mines and hidden obstacles that were more difficult for the current version of COBRA to detect. With testing completed the first COBRA systems will be delivered in 2019 and join a growing number of powerful sensors for relatively small UAVs, as are common when for shipboard use.
An example of this is the RDR-1700 maritime-surveillance radar. The 32 kg (71 pound) RDR-1700 operates in a 360 degree mount underneath the UAV or helicopter. This is a SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) system that shows objects on the water in a photorealistic way. The max range of this SAR is 80 kilometers, although for the most detailed resolution max range is 25 kilometers. SAR can see through clouds and even sand storms (which sometimes blow out over coastal waters). The RDR-1700 can also be used over land for terrain mapping or for weather detection. The RDR-1700 software enables the radar to track up to 20 surface or aerial objects at a time. The RDR-1700 would be operated from the ship the Fire Scout took off from and provide longer range search and reconnaissance capability at night and in bad weather. This would be particularly useful in the Persian Gulf (where Iran uses a lot of small but heavily armed speed boats) or off the Somali coast (where pirates like to operate at night with multiple speedboats stalking a larger ship). The COBRA device is similar in that it depends on lightweight, reliable and powerful electronics.
MQ-8Bs are operated from a LCSs (Littoral Control Ship) and any other ship that can handle a small helicopter. The LCS carries up to four MQ-8B Fire Scout UAVs while many frigates, destroyers and coast guard ships can operate one or two. 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, max altitude of 6,100 meters (20,000 feet) and a max speed of 210 kilometers an hour. The MQ-8B can be armed with 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 and with a range of 6,000 meters). The MQ-8C can carry heavier weapons, like the 48.2 kg (106 pounds) Hellfire missile.
So far the navy has bought 30 MQ-8Bs and plans to buy 60 of the larger MQ-8Cs. The MQ-8B/C can use UCARS (UAV Common Automated Recovery System). This is the new standard UAV landing system for navy ships. UCARS sends out a signal to UAVs when they are several kilometers away and automatically guides them into a landing on the ship. This works with helicopter or fixed wing UAVs.
The larger MQ-8C version made its first flight in October 2013 and entered service in 2016. The MQ-8C was created by having the mechanical and software components (that make a manned helicopter into a UAV) from the MQ-8B installed in the larger Bell 407 helicopter. As a result, the 1.4 ton MQ-8B becomes the 2.7 ton MQ-8C which has a payload of 1.3 tons, max speed of 260 kilometers an hour, max altitude of 6,100 meters (20,000 feet) and endurance of 15 hours. Proponents of the MQ-8C want a larger model of Fire Scout because that would provide more endurance, greater stability in bad weather, and the ability to carry more weapons. Both versions of the MQ-8 have their endurance reduced by a third if they fly with max payload.
MQ-8C will be 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 over Libya and Afghanistan. However, the small size of the MQ-8B has limited its usefulness and the 8B version 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.
China has copied the MQ-8B and C models.