The Northrop Grumman MQ-8 is classified as a "Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle" and - unlike other UAVs in operation today - is more akin in form and function to a traditional helicopter than a fixed-wing aircraft. As a rotary-wing design, the MQ-8 can take off and land vertically from virtually any terrain type and can loiter in air for extended periods of time - features not available to other UAV classes. The system is designed to provide for real-time reconnaissance, surveillance of enemy movement, battle damage assessment, direct targeting of enemy personnel/vehicles and general intelligence gathering. Its aerial nature provides ground commanders (from the company level to small unit) the necessary "eyes in the sky" that can make a true difference in battle - supplying Over The Horizon (OTH) vantage points not unlike the manned reconnaissance balloons of World War 1.
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.
Design-wise, the RQ-8/MQ-8 family followed much in line with the appearance of modern helicopters. The fuselage was well-contoured with a curved nose cone assembly housing the required optics suite. the optics package was slung underneath the nose for unfettered views of the terrain ahead, the cameras set within a rounded blister-type protrusion, completely modular in its inherent design. The optics suite choices currently include the Star SAFIRE III EO/IR/LRF camera package, the US Navy Baseline EO/IR/LRF camera package, a mine detector system, a UHF/VHF Comm Relay kit and a Maritime Radar system. The fuselage body is well-refined and mounts a mast housing for the main rotor assembly while being home to all of the major internal working components needed for mission success. Avionics are stored in a shielded compartment aft of the nose assembly with the nose also housing the UCARS antenna array. The Tactical Common Data Link Antenna array is set above the nose and ahead of the mast superstructure. The mast superstructure holds the required fuel stores for the engine as well as flight control actuators. From the aft portion of the fuselage, there extends a boom assembly that runs a shaft powering the tail rotor, the rotor being conventionally offset to the portside of the aircraft to counter the inherent torque of the main rotor. A UHF/VHF antenna is set along the dorsal portion of the tail boom, just aft of the rotor mast housing. Another UHF/VHF fixture is mounted ventrally along the midway point of the tail boom. A third UHF/VHF antenna resides on the extreme top of the vertical tail fin. Two small GPS dorsal antennas are set a the boom midway point. The tail is capped by a vertical tail fin that extends above and below the boom's tapered aft end whilst the upper fin also sports a small pair of horizontal tailplanes. The underside of the UAV' fuselage is flat in design while the undercarriage is of a traditional skid arrangement, joined to the fuselage at four reinforced strong points. The improved MQ-8 model can fit optional side-mounted pylons for the carrying of equipment pods or ordnance - further broadening the vehicle's mission scope. All told, the MQ-8 can haul upwards of 600lbs of equipment or weaponry.
Overall specifications include a running length of 30 feet with a rotor diameter of 27.5 feet. Height to the top of the tail antenna is 9.7 feet. The MQ-8 is powered by a single Rolls-Royce 250-C20W turboshaft engine. While basic mission endurance time is eight hours, a fully-loaded MQ-8 (fitting its maximum available payload) is just over five hours.
Like other new-generation UAVs, the MQ-8 can be operated in an autonomous nature, meaning it can control itself based on available programming. The system can take-off, fly and land all through automatic means if required though there is a built-in manual override function. Additionally, the UAVs mission parameters can be updated "on-the-fly" without need for the aircraft to land and be reworked. The MQ-8 airframe can reach speeds of up to 125 knots and altitudes of up to 20,000 feet out to distances of 200 kilometers from its launch point. The entire MQ-8 package is designed to be highly modular with current and future planned systems. There is a standard integrated Electro-Optical/Infrared (EO/IR) laser range finder/designator/illuminator as well as a voice/data communications relay suite. Target designation allows the MQ-8 the ability to laser a target for accompanying strike aircraft (strike fighters or helicopters) while the communications relay capability extends battlefield awareness for accompanying ground units and naval vessels. Full motion video is presented in full color treatment for excellent target identification purposes which can help limit civilian and collateral damage. Available optional equipment for the MQ-8 family now includes countermeasures pods, mine detection services, an aerial Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), SATellite COMmunications (SATCOM), a Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS), a Tactical Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR/MTI) and dragged Sonobouy - the latter extremely useful for at-sea deployment and maritime duties. The MQ-8 is fully compatible with the United States Navy's current software network scheme. The main rotor blades can be folded back for improved storage aboard naval vessels where internal stowage space is always a precious commodity. Its relatively small size also allows it to be launched and retrieved from most navy surface vessels with little disruption to standard deck operations.
The US Navy first deployed their Sea Scout in an operational manner aboard the USS McInerney (FFG-8) guided-missile frigate in September of 2009. A Sea Scout aircraft then successfully completed an interception mission of drug-laden speedboat in the Pacific Ocean the following year. Throughout the American involvement of the Libyan Civil War in 2011, the Sea Scout proved useful in the reconnaissance / intelligence-gathering role. However, it is notable that one MQ-8B was lost to enemy fire during operations in the theater, a loss confirmed by US Navy authorities.