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The MQ-8 Fire Scout: America’s Unmanned Robot Helicopter

In many ways, the 21st Century sometimes doesn’t feel quite as advanced as we once assumed it would be. Look at 2001 a Space Odyssey for example, or the year 2015 depicted in the 1989 Back to the Future Part 2. If you’d asked somebody back in the 1960s what they thought the present day would look like, it would probably be very different – and dare I say it, more visually impressive.

Where are all the hoverboards, the flying cars, the intergalactic space travel – dammit, where are the colonies on Mars. Humanity has certainly evolved but not necessarily how we would have predicted. But occasional glimmers do appear. Occasionally we catch a glimpse of the future and the MQ-8 Fire Scout is exactly that. 

For those of us brought up within the wake of the Terminator franchise, there will always be something slightly unnerving about autonomous machines capable of killing you. After all, everybody remembers Skynet, the subsequent near extermination of the human race and the dreaded Terminator. I’m certainly not suggesting that these unmanned autonomous helicopters are a precursor to the end of the world, but it’s something to keep an eye on at least. 

Jokes aside, the MQ-8 is an ingenious little creation that really gives you a sense of technological progress. Designed to provide reconnaissance, situational awareness, aerial fire support and precision targeting support, this is one piece of military hardware that seems to straddle the past, the present and the future. 

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles   

It’s a bird, it’s a plane – no it’s just an unmanned aerial vehicle. While the MQ-8 might look like Sarah Connor’s worst nightmare, UAVs have been around for some time. Drones are now used for a wide variety of purposes, from photography and filmmaking to police use and even home delivery.

In terms of military use, UAVs really took off – pun intended – during the Cold War as nations looked to bolster their espionage capabilities without having to risk human lives in the process. The U.S produced the Ryan Model 147 Lightning Bug and the Lockheed D-21 during the 1960s, while there was plenty of activity using drones in Israel during the 1970s, either for reconnaissance or decoys. 

The use of drones has expanded dramatically in the past couple of decades, with over a third of the U.S Air Force Aircraft now classified as UAVs. As of 2013, more than 50 countries around the world used UAVs in some capacity and that number is only going one way. 

Technology 

At this point, you might well be wondering what’s the difference between the noisy mechanical bee nest that amateur photographers used to take aerial pictures and something like the MQ-8. The technological capabilities of UAVs are incredibly wide-ranging. Perhaps the best place to start is whether they’re autonomous or remotely piloted. The drone taking pictures in the park is almost certainly controlled by a human on the ground who is responsible for every movement of the drone.

That’s one extreme – while the other is the MQ-8 which can operate autonomously during most of its missions – something we’ll go into more specifically regarding the MQ-8 later in the video. In between these two extremes is a large grey area where remote piloting and autonomy overlap each other. Some UAVs can hold their altitude using barometric pressure and GPS data, some can orbit around a set object, while others can take off and land without human assistance and even find their way home all on their own. 

With so many variables, the category of UAVs can be enormous and as technology improves further, it’s only going to become bigger. The MQ-8 is also quite different to other UAVs in that it’s more akin to a helicopter than a traditional aircraft and it carries the kind of destructive qualities that can blow you to pieces before you’ve even had time to say, ‘what’s that strange buzzing sound.’  

The RQ-Pioneer   

To examine the development of the MQ-8, we need to begin with what came before it – the AAI RQ-Pioneer used by the United States Navy, Marine Corps, and Army, between 1986 and 2007. Launched either from a runway or onboard a ship via a catapult, the RQ-Pioneer took part in numerous reconnaissance missions in the middle east during the Gulf Wars as well as during the Balkan Wars and the conflicts in Somalia. 

The RQ-Pioneer’s most memorable moment came during a damage assessment mission when it approached the island of Failaka off the coast of Kuwait during the First Gulf War. The USS Missouri, from where the Pioneer had flown, had just delivered a terrifying salvo on top of the Iraqis stationed on the island. As the Pioneer converged on the island to assess the damage, scores of soldiers emerged with their hands held aloft. The first recorded instance of humans surrendering directly to a machine.         

Early Development of the MQ-8

The MQ-8 came into being out of a need to both replace the RQ-Pioneers and modernise the technology. The U.S Navy set out its requirements, which included vertical takeoff & landing capabilities, a payload capacity of 90 kg (200 lb), a range of 125 miles (200 km), an endurance of three hours at 6,100 m (20,000 feet) – while also being able to land of a moving ship in a 46 km/h (29 mph) wind. 

Three companies were shortlisted as possible manufacturers, but it was a collaboration between the Teledyne Ryan and Schweizer Aircraft companies that secured the contract to begin work on a prototype roughly based on the Schweizer Model 330 helicopter. Most of the Fire Scout’s early flights were done so with the added safety measure of a pilot on board but took to the skies for the first time autonomously in January 2000. This earliest model, known as the RQ-8, came with a Rolls-Royce 250-C20 turbine engine which ran on JP-8 and JP-5 jet fuel and a three-blade rotor assembly. But if we’ve learnt anything here on Megaprojects, it is that the military-industrial complex works in ways that us mere humans often fail to grasp. 

In December 2001, the U.S Navy withdrew its interest in the RQ-8, despite it making steady and impressive progress. Maybe instead they wanted to focus on their Rail Guns, Zumwalt Destroyers and Long Range Land Attack Projectiles – all of which haven’t really worked out so far either, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t already covered them on this channel. 

Rebirth

But while the U.S Navy was no longer interested, Northrop Grumman, the company that had supplied the bulk of the data-link functionality, had a feeling that this was one project worth pursuing. Over the next couple of years, they tinkered with configurations while pitching the UAV to anybody that would listen and in 2003, the U.S Army declared their interest and a contract was signed to build seven RQ-8s – renamed MQ-8 in 2006. 

That same year, production began on the airframe at Northrop Grumman’s Unmanned Systems production plant in Moss Point, Mississippi with the first flight taking place on 18th December 2006. And guess what, it proved such a success that the Navy came crawling back and eventually ordered eight Sea Scout MQ-8B derivatives for evaluation. And just to complete the dizzying merry-go-round, the Army formally withdrew from the project in 2010, choosing instead to focus on another UAV in development, the RQ-7 Shadow. 

The MQ-8B Fire Scout  

The MQ-8B carries all the hallmarks of a slightly stunted helicopter. It is 7.30 metres (23.95 feet) long, 1.9 metres (6.2 feet) wide, and 2.96 metres (9.71 feet) tall. It comes with a four-blade main rotor, which can be folded back to help with storage, and a single Rolls-Royce 250 engine producing 420 horsepower. It has two stub wings which improve aerodynamics and serve as a handy place to keep some weapons.  

Obviously, it doesn’t need to have a cockpit and comes with a curved nose which protects the optic suite behind. The contents of this suite depends on its mission and who’s using it, but generally includes camera packages, mine detectors, communication relay kits or radar systems. The types of weapons it can carry also varies depending on the purpose but can include Hellfire missiles, Viper Strike laser-guided glide weapons, and the murderously named Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS), a laser-guided 70 mm (2.75 in) folding-fin rocket.

It has a top speed of 213 km/h (132 mph) and an endurance of 8 hours, though that figure goes down to 5 hours when it nears its maximum take-off weight of 1,430 kg (3,150 lb). But perhaps most impressive regarding the MQ-8B is its ability to operate autonomously. Now, before you get too excited, you can’t simply send the MQ-8B into battle and just hope for the best. In the future, we’ll almost certainly have machines that can do this, but for now, the technology is still in its relative infancy. The MQ-8B can take off and land on its own, can track objects and generally fly independently as long as it remains within sight of the ship from which it disembarked. If that sounds disappointingly constraining, don’t worry, Northrup Gunmen and the Navy are said to be working on how to extend this.   

Operational History

History was made in January 2006 when an RQ-8A Fire Scout (the earlier model) landed autonomously onboard the USS Nashville while she was out at sea – the first-ever landing on a U.S ship by an object not piloted by a human. The MQ-8Bs then underwent significant real-world testing before the first was deployed in September 2009, initially focusing on anti-piracy operations. On 3rd April 2010, the new UAVs scored a hit when an MQ-8B successfully detected a speed boat smuggling cocaine in the Eastern Pacific – a find that resulted in the confiscation of 60 kg (132lbs) of the white powder. 

The next few years had their ups and downs. MQ-8Bs were deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 and Libya in the same year for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance purposes. The first MQ-8B to be shot down was taken out by troops loyal to Gaddafi on 21st June 2011, while the following year, two MQ-8Bs crashed within a week of each other – one in the ocean off the coast of Africa and the other in Afghanistan – leading to the entire fleet being grounded while the causes were investigated. A faulty navigation system was found to have caused the crash in the ocean, but the accident in Afghanistan was much harder to pin down and was never fully explained. After a few months of hiatus, the MQ-8Bs recommenced operations in both Afghanistan and the Indian Ocean.

Many of the details surrounding the missions conducted by the MQ-8s of course haven’t been released to the general public, but from what we can gather they have proved themselves a great addition to the U.S Navy. Between 2006 and 2013, MQ-8Bs assigned to anti-piracy had flown over 8,000 hours, more than half in real-world operations. While in Afghanistan, MQ-8Bs had clocked up an impressive 10,000 flight hours supporting naval and ground forces by the end of their deployment in 2013.

It is also worth adding here that as far as we know, the MQ-8B has never fired its weapons in a real-world situation. Whether this is down to technological constraints or military choices we’re not sure, but it would seem like we still have some time to wait until we have an autonomous UAV in battle. Sarah Connor would probably be relieved.   

Upgrade – The MQ-8C 

But time stands still for nobody – or in this case nothing. Even as the MQ-8B was proving itself spying on pirates, smugglers and terrorists, its upgrade was nearing completion. The MQ-8C, with an airframe based on the Bell 407 helicopter, took to the skies for the first time in October 2013 and represents a solid upgrade on the earlier model. 

The new ‘C’ version comes with an improved endurance of 12 hours, a longer range of 280 km (170 miles) and a payload capacity of 318 kg (701 lb), three times that of the MQ-8B. Other than that, it shares the same software, avionics, payloads, and ship ancillary equipment as the B model. One late addition was the new Osprey 30 lightweight AESA radar which offers full spherical coverage with no moving parts – making it significantly harder to track on radar. This in itself is quite a revolutionary piece of kit and is a 360-degree, 50 kg (110 lb) airborne radar that uses fixed panels distributed around the body of the aircraft to feed information back into a central system. 

The MQ-8C has been through several years of testing but was finally declared mission capable in June 2019 and is expected to be assigned surface warfare mine countermeasure missions in the coming years, most probably used with Littoral combat ships in the U.S Navy.  

The Future

This is a technology still in its early stages, but one that is almost certain to play a huge role in both military aviation and eventually civil aviation. I know for many the thought of sitting back in a self-driving car sends shivers up your spine, and for those people, the idea of a large airliner one day taking to the skies without a pilot might just be too much. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an uncomfortable thought, but that’s just because we’re still thinking like early 21st Century humans. 

UAVs are set to play a defining role in the future whether we like it or not. Like other forms of automation, it’s almost certainly going to signal drastic changes in the number of humans needed, which will no doubt lead to plenty of teething problems and certainly plenty of arguments.  

As I said right at the start of the video, the MQ-8 Fire Scout seems to straddle the past, the present and the future. It provides us with a familiar helicopter shape, style and even sound, but the closer it draws to you, you begin to get a sense that you’re peering into the future. A future filled with unmanned UAV taxis, Judge Dread style law enforcement vehicles and a complicated relationship with machines that will begin to blur the boundary between natural and artificial.     

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