April 11, 2010: Recently, a U.S. Navy frigate, operating in the eastern Pacific, used its MQ-8B helicopter UAV to detect a high speed cocaine smuggling boat. After tracking the smuggler for three hours, the fast boat halted alongside a fishing boat and refueled. A Coast Guard boarding team, from the frigate, then closed in and made arrests. They seized 60 kg (132 pounds) of cocaine, and witnessed the smugglers tossing another 200 kg (440 pounds) overboard. A manned helicopter would not have had the endurance to carry out this kind of operation.
For the last six months, the U.S. Navy has been testing its helicopter UAV, the MQ-8B (formerly the RQ-8) Fire Scout, on the frigate USS McInerney (FFG-8). The MQ-8B was originally developed for use on the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), and was due to enter service last year. But the LCS is behind schedule and the Fire Scout isn't, so the navy assigned the Fire Scout to other ships. Thus first ships to carry the helicopter UAV ended up being Perry class frigates.
The USS McInerney is assigned to the 4th Fleet, and initially operated in the Caribbean, chasing drug smugglers. This gave the Fire Scout some real world experience, although not with the Hellfire missiles it can carry. Prior to this assignment, the Fire Scout underwent 110 takeoffs and landings on the frigate, and 600 hours of flight testing. The USS McInerney was recently shifted to the Pacific, to get some experience in a different oceanic environment.
The MQ-8B can stay in the air for up to eight hours at a time (five hour missions are more common), has a top speed of 230 kilometers an hour, and can operate up to 230 kilometers from its controller (on land, or a ship.) The MQ-8B is still going to be used on the new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).
The MQ-8B carries day and night cameras, GPS and targeting gear (laser range finders and designators). The MQ-8B is based on a two seat civilian helicopter (the Schweizer Model 333), and has a maximum takeoff weight of 1.5 tons. With its rotors folded (for storage on ships), the MQ-8B is 7.5 meters (23 feet long) and three meters (9.4 feet) high. Max payload is 273 kg (600 pounds), meaning it can carry 106 pound Hellfire, or 44 pound Viper Strike missiles. Each MQ-8B UAV costs about $8 million (including a share of the ground control equipment and some spares.) The flight control software enables the MQ-8B to land and take off automatically.