The US Navy has been developing the MQ-8 series of Vertical Take-off Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for over a decade now. In fact, for years now, they’ve quietly been deploying them aboard frigates deployed overseas.
The original operational FireScout is based on the Schweitzer 330SP helicopter. It carries sensors that are datalinked back to the launching ship. The actual flying is done autonomously by the on board autopilot.
Getting rid of the human crew increases the available payload for the aircraft. And in the case of the MQ-8, much of that increased payload capability goes to carrying extra fuel, allowing it to stay on station for extended periods of time.
The hard part of the development program was the autonomous flight controls, the datalink, and developing shipboard handling, landing, and take off techniques. Soon after it became operational, it struck the Navy that a larger airframe would be relatively easy to develop, and would give even greater endurance and the ability to carry a more extensive sensor suite as well as potentially carry weapons. And so the Bell 407 was adapted, becoming the MQ-8C. Totally different airframe, and yet it still carries a designation that implies a minor change. In some ways, that’s a ruse to avoid too much Congressional curiosity, but in others, it is simply a recognition that the heart of the program isn’t the airframe, but the computers and software that enable the airframe to fly.
We were initially a little skeptical of the MQ-8C. But the ability to loiter on station for hours on end is nothing to sneeze at. You can monitor one item of interest for extended periods. Or you can sweep a goodly swath of ocean. The MQ-8C has an endurance of up to fourteen hours. That’s 10 or 11 hours longer than a manned equivalent.