The Fire-X is being jointly developed as a full-size Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) by Northrop Grumman and Bell Helicopter. The vehicle is based on a heavily modified airframe concerning the Bell 407 multipurpose commercial / light utility helicopter. The original Bell 407 was introduced in 1996 with production having surpassed 1,000 units in 2011. The Fire-X development, therefore, retains much of the basic layout of the Bell 407 including its four-bladed main rotor and two-bladed tail rotor configuration. Essentially, the aircraft IS a Bell 407 though with a shrouded canopy housing the required avionics (the equipment based on the MQ-8B Fire Scout UAV development). The undercarriage remains the simple two-point skid assembly and the engine is mounted in the upper section of the fuselage roof, a shaft driving the tail rotor through the empennage stem. First flight of the Fire-X was recorded on December 20th, 2010.
Unlike other traditional, highly-publicized fixed-wing UAVs such as the "Predator", the Fire-X is part of a growing class of UAVs with vertical-minded, "helicopter-like" qualities that enable the vehicle to take-off and land from confined spaces such as the flight deck of an ocean-going, space-strapped ship. The intended role of the Fire-X is to provide at-sea replenishment to US Navy vessels.
The Fire-X is being developed in conjunction with the dimensionally smaller Northrop Grumman MQ-8 "Fire Scout" for possible procurement by the United States Navy. However, the Fire Scout makes use of the Schweizer three-person S-333 series light helicopter which is, of course, appropriately modified for the UAV role. Conversely, the Fire-X represents a dimensionally larger and more powerful unmanned alternative showcasing double the range of the Fire Scout as well as up to three times its payload-carrying capacity. The Fire-X has already proven itself through rigorous and extensive testing originating out of the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona to which some 250 flights has already been recorded. The system was trialed through autonomous actions, take-off and landing operations and various payload configurations of the external and internal kind. Testing altitudes were all restricted to sub-20,000 feet though this is also in line with the service ceiling of the original Bell 407 series. Performance figures for the Fire-X development include a 24-hour flight endurance window with a payload hauling capability of up to 1,000lb though use of an internal cargo bay or a sling-line external approach.
Under the "Fire-X" name, the aircraft was intended as a proof-of-concept demonstration vehicle to which will evolve the production-quality "MQ-8C" form for the US Navy (should all go as planned). As of this writing (2013), the Fire-X will be transferred to the U.S. Navy in the coming months for formal evaluation under the "MQ-8C Fire Scout Endurance Upgrade Program" beginning in late 2013 out of Naval Air Station Point Mugu, California. The program has also evaluated the Boeing A160T Hummingbird as well as the Lockheed/Kaman K-Max unmanned vertical systems.
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January 2018 - Some 19 MQ-8B aircraft have been delivered by Northrop to the United States Navy to date.
June 2019 - Initial Operating Capability (IOC) of the MQ-8C was achieved in June of 2019. Deployment aboard U.S. Navy littoral combat ships is expected during 2021.
December 2019 - Bell is being asked by the U.S. Navy to prototype its MQ-8C unmanned helicopter with weapons. Bell was awarded a contract for this work in late-November 2019 following a period of studies and feasibility involving the current airframe design.
December 2019 - The United States Navy is expecting a total of 38 MQ-8C examples to be delivered in all.
February 2020 - The United States Navy has labeled the MQ-8C as "not operationally effective" after evaluations.
C-model has been proposed with support for AGM-114 'Hellfire' Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs), the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System rockets, general rocket pods, gun pods, depth charges, anti-ship missiles, and possibly precision-guided bombs and torpedoes.
Fire-X - Base Developmental Series Designation.
MQ-8B - Improved evaluation models.
MQ-8C - Designation for production-quality Fire-X.
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Image from the United States Navy.
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Image copyright official Northrop Grumman marketing material.
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