March 14, 2012: On March 7, the U.S. Navy began operating its MQ-8B Fire Scout helicopter UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle) from ships without sending up a manned helicopter to accompany them. Previously a Fire Scout acted in support of a manned helicopter, which also kept an eye on the remotely operated UAV. But the Fire Scout has spent sufficient time in the air to assure commanders that the UAV is capable of operating alone. A Fire Scout detachment consists of two UAVs and 22 personnel (four pilots, three sensor operators, and 15 maintainers).
In the last two years eight MQ-8Bs have flown nearly 2,000 hours, most of it in Afghanistan (from a land base). In 2011, two more MQ-8Bs were sent to sea with a frigate in the Mediterranean and one was lost over Libya last June.
All this is encouraging as the American military has not had a lot of success with helicopter UAVs. Three years ago the U.S. Army cancelled its RQ-8B Fire Scout UAV project. It just didn't work out. But for the navy, it's been different.
The navy kept their Fire Scouts and have developed, and put into use, their own MQ-8B version. The RQ-8B died because the army already had plenty of UAVs that got the job done. The navy kept Fire Scout because helicopters are more practical on most navy ships (for landings and takeoffs). Navy Fire Scouts have already been successfully tested on frigates (in both the Atlantic and Pacific). Meanwhile, there is a huge demand for UAVs in Afghanistan, so the navy sent what it could.
In Afghanistan, the navy hoped to fly each of the MQ-8Bs a hundred hours a month but soon got that up to 125 hours. In effect, MQ-8B underwent its final field tests in Afghanistan and along the coast of Libya. The ones in Afghanistan underwent a particularly severe test, as Afghanistan is one of the most harsh environments for helicopters.
The 1.5 ton Fire Scout is based upon the Schweitzer 333 unmanned helicopter, which in turn is derived from the Schweitzer 330 commercial lightweight manned helicopter. Fire Scout has a payload of 272 kg (600 pounds), a cruising speed of 200 kilometers an hour, max altitude of 6,100 meters (20,000 feet), and endurance of eight hours. The U.S. Navy plans to acquire another 160 MQ-8Bs. The ones in Afghanistan were being operated by contractors.