May 23, 2012: A Japanese warship recently passed by a Chinese frigate that appeared to be flying a helicopter UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) off its helicopter pad. The Japanese took photos and passed them around. At first it was noted that the helicopter looked like the Schiebel S-100 Camcopter. Schiebel is an Austrian firm which markets the S-100 in many countries via the U.S. firm Boeing Aircraft. But Schiebel continues to sell the S-100 itself, and a little digging revealed that the Chinese had bought 18 S-100s two years ago. While the three S-100s seen on the aft deck of the Chinese frigate do look like the S-100, there also appear to be some differences. So either China modified some of the S-100s it had bought or has created an S-100 clone. European nations are not supposed to sell China weapons (because of an arms embargo), but the S-100s were apparently sold to Chinese police organizations (which is legal and the S-100 does have civilian users). One Chinese firm has already offered a helicopter UAV similar to the S-100.
The S-100 weighs 200 kg (440 pounds), can stay aloft six hours per sortie, and operates at a max altitude of 5,500 meters (18,000 feet). Max speed is 220 kilometers an hour. So far, some 200 S-100s have been sold to military and civilian customers.
Chinese firms have developed several helicopter UAV designs. For example, the Chinese V750 weighs 757 kg (1,665 pounds) and has a payload of 80 kg (176 pounds). Max speed is 161 kilometers an hour and endurance is four hours. The V750 can fly a pre-programmed route or be controlled by a ground operator (up to 150 kilometers away). The manufacturer is offering the V750 for civilian (scientific survey, search and rescue, police surveillance) and military uses. There are over a dozen other Chinese helicopter UAVs on the market.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has taken the lead in this area, with several models developed in the last decade. The one most similar to V750 is the MQ-8B Fire Scout which is operating in Afghanistan and aboard warships. The U.S. Navy developed, and put into use, the MQ-8B. A similar model, the RQ-8B, died because the U.S. 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 been successfully used on frigates (in both the Atlantic and Pacific). There is a huge demand for UAVs in Afghanistan, so the navy sent some there.
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 over 160 Fire Scouts.
Several other navies have been testing helicopter UAVs on their warships, and this type of UAV seems destined to replace a lot of manned helicopters on warships and enable smaller warships (that cannot handle the larger manned helicopters) to operate unmanned helicopters.