The Navy and Northrop Grumman successfully demonstrated that unmanned rotor aircraft are capable of supporting missions that require travel over long distances. During a recent test, air vehicle operators from Helicopter Squadron (HSC) 23 handed off two of Northrop Grumman’s MQ-8B Fire Scout helicopters among several ground stations for the first time.

The first part of the two-pronged demonstration followed up on identical simulator tests conducted in May at Northrop Grumman’s facility in San Diego, and involved real-time launches form Naval Auxiliary Landing Field San Clemente Island, Calif. Operators handed the aircraft off to colleagues at Naval Base Ventura County, Point Mugu, Calif., and then back to San Clemente.

The ability to transfer control of Fire Scouts to different teams enhances the aircraft’s range and effectiveness and enhances battle-space awareness, the team who conducted the tests believes.
“Having the capability to hand off control of the Fire Scout mid-flight significantly increases [the aircraft’s] range and really shows what the system is capable of,” said Melissa Packwood of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, who manages the Fire Scout program for the company.

Sailors and Marines later used Fire Scout in a pre-deployment exercise involving the amphibious assault ship America and its amphibious ready group/Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).
During the demonstration, a radar-equipped Fire Scout served as the laser designator platform for an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter, which in turn used the information to launch a Hellfire missile at a moving surface contact.

“Fire Scout truly becomes the force multiplier for the user by increasing operator time on-station and elevating the effectiveness of the fleet,” Packwood said.
To date, more than 70 pilots received training as payload and autonomous-vehicle operators at the San Diego facility. A team of operators from HSC-23 is deployed with a Seahawk and two Fire Scouts on the Independence-class littoral combat ship Coronado.