Fire Scout UAV completes at-sea deployment


The Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout Vertical Takeoff Unmanned Aerial Vehicle has completed the type’s second at-sea deployment, where it was used by the US Navy for anti-piracy operations

Two Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were deployed aboard the USS Halyburton (FFG 40) at the beginning of January. The system was tasked to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) support for anti-piracy operations conducted by the US Navy’s 5th Fleet.
“This deployment was the first opportunity since deploying on the USS McInerney (FFG 8) for the Navy to fully use Fire Scout operationally,” said George Vardoulakis, vice president for tactical unmanned systems for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.
“The system was involved in three different anti-piracy actions; participated in operations over Libya; and supported a Strait of Hormuz transit with the ship’s SH-60B helicopter – a valuable manned and unmanned aircraft operation that allows ship commanders to extend their awareness at greater distances from the ship.”

Fire Scout also successfully proved a special operations concept for sea-based ISR capabilities and observed a Yemeni fishing boat that had been stranded at sea for 10 days, allowing the Halyburton’s crew to provide assistance.

In the six-month deployment, the system flew for more than 435 hours during 126 missions and maintained a sortie completion rate of more than 80%. Meanwhile, three MQ-8Bs have accumulated more than 950 hours in support of operations in Afghanistan.

Fire Scout operations aboard the Halyburton benefited significantly from lessons learned during a 2009 Fire Scout military utility assessment aboard the McInerney, manufacturer Northrop Grumman said in a statement.

The US Navy announced the deployment of the Fire Scout aboard the McInerney in September 2009. In April last year, an MQ-8 from McInerney detected a “go-fast” speedboat and a support vessel engaged in smuggling cocaine in the Eastern Pacific, allowing the ship to confiscate 60 kg of cocaine and detain a number of suspects.

To date, the system has flown for more than 2,500 hours. Approximately 1,200 of those hours were accrued during operational deployments with the Halyburton and in Afghanistan.

The Fire Scout’s successful deployment comes after its less than successful first deployment aboard the Halyburton. A June 24 report by the Defence Operational Test and Evaluation office said all of the Fire Scout’s flights during training took off late and more than half of those missions and flights from the Halyburton were incomplete, largely due to problems with the communications link used to control the aircraft and to relay its full-motion video.

Problems with the link were the main reason why the Fire Scout was able to complete just 29 of 58 assigned missions while aboard the Halyburton. However, George Vardoulakis, a vice president for tactical unmanned systems at Northrop Grumman, said the problems on Halyburton were largely caused by a broken antenna. Once repaired, the mission success rate exceeded 97 percent, he said.

Communications link problems also caused the MQ-8B to fail ten out of ten test missions at Naval Air Station Patuxent River and caused one of the aircraft to fly uncontrolled from the station into restricted airspace near Washington, DC, on August 2 last year, before control was regained.

The US Navy has said the communication link problems have been rectified and the Fire Scout is now performing far better.

The Navy plans to buy up to 168 Fire Scouts. Production aircraft will eventually be deployed on the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships.

The RQ-8A Fire Scout made history in January 2006 when it landed aboard the USS Nashville whilst it was steaming off the coast of Maryland, marking the first time an unmanned helicopter has landed autonomously aboard a moving US Navy ship without a pilot controlling the aircraft.

It made further history on June 21 when an MQ-8 from the USS Halyburton was shot down during a surveillance and reconnaissance mission over Libya, marking the first US/NATO combat loss over the country.

The US Navy has plans to arm the Fire Scout and aims to fit the aircraft with weapons within 18 months. First tests will be with the laser-guided Griffin, and later with 2.75-inch rockets from the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System.