Staff Writer (Updated: 1/29/2015):
The RQ-8/MQ-8 was born out of a US Navy need to replace its aged and outgoing RQ-2 Pioneer fixed-wing UAV systems. As the use of UAVs began to grow throughout the US military - and specifically within USN doctrine - so did the requirements for a new multi-faceted UAV system. As such, the Navy specified a modern UAV design to have a range out to 125 miles with a mission endurance time of at least 3 hours and be able to carry a payload of up to 200lbs. Additionally, as a USN aircraft, the UAV should also possess the ability to be launched and retrieved at sea from the decks of existing USN surface vessels.
Several American-based concerns submitted proposals and it was ultimately the Schweizer Aircraft firm that won out with a modified form of its commercial light utility helicopter based on Schweizer Model 330. This selection was not without merit for the system was proven and could pose a cost-effective approach for the USN, able to grow the Schweizer design as-needed and relying on readily available parts and proven function. Power would be supplied by a Rolls-Royce 250 engine rotating a three-blade main rotor assembly. The new design was, of course, highly modified as a pilotless UAV and , from there, formally designated as the "RQ-8 Fire Scout". First flight of an RQ-8 was recorded in January of 2000 and initial models were marked simply as "RQ-8A" with Northrop Grumman as the primary contractor (Northrop Grumman supplying the all-important data link functionality, this based on the one as used in the RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV).
As promising as the RQ-8A was, it proved not the answer for the USN need. While USN interest in the product waned, US Army interest in the project grew and, with some additional alterations in the design, an evolution in the project produced the enhanced "RQ-8B" in 2003. The system was then redesignated as the "MQ-8B" in 2006. The RQ-8B evaluation models sported a modular missions package capability - even able to mount ordnance - as well as a four-bladed main rotor assembly that increased/improved specifications. The US Army then contracted for several evaluation airframes to test the battlefield viability of the system. With the arrival of the newer MQ-8B platform, US Navy interest rekindled which led to procurement of evaluation vehicles all their own. In US Navy service, the Fire Scout then became the "Sea Scout" while, interestingly enough, the US Army elected not to pursue the Fire Scout after a period of evaluation - realizing that their RQ-7 Shadow line of UAVs was more than sufficient for their battlefield UAV requirements.