Back in 2013 the Spanish Navy leased (for six months) several Swedish Skeldar V-200 helicopter UAVs for some of its ships, including one headed for duty in the Indian Ocean as part of the anti-piracy patrol. The Spanish users reported that the Skeldar V had some serious problems. Mostly this involved mechanical unreliability when subjected to regular use at sea and difficulties getting the UAV electronics to reliably work with ship electronic systems. The Swedes are looking for ways to deal with the problems, but for the moment sales to the Spanish Navy are on hold.
The Skeldar V-200 is a 200 kg (440 pound) helicopter with a 40 kg (88 pound) payload. It can fly as high as 2,400 meters (7,500 feet), has a top speed of 130 kilometers an hour, can operate up to 150 kilometers from its operator, and has an endurance of 5 hours. In addition to the basic daylight vidcam, the UAV can be equipped with a night camera, laser designator, electronic monitoring gear, and whatever else is light enough to fit. The Skeldar V-200 successfully completed acceptance tests with the Spanish Navy but when used regularly off Somalia problems developed.
Helicopter UAVs are becoming more common, cheaper, and reliable. But as the Swedes are discovering, designing and building this type of aircraft, especially one that can handle the harsh environment at sea and the regular use is not easy. Despite these risks, this type of UAV is particularly attractive to navies because they can be operated off the rear of most large (over 2,000 tons) warships.
For example, the U.S. Navy is moving towards a second generation of even larger helicopter UAVs. It recently created a MQ-8C by having the mechanical and software components (that make a manned helicopter a UAV) from its existing MQ-8B Fire Scout to the larger Bell 407 helicopter. As a result the 1.4 ton MQ-8B Fire Scout becomes the 2.7 ton MQ-8C. The navy bought eight MQ-8Cs for test and evaluation and, if that is successful, another 20 for regular service. But first the MQ-8C must prove it can get the job done. The navy spent the better part of a decade developing and testing the MQ-8B, and overcoming some of the problems the Skeldar V encountered, before they ended up with a useful and reliable helicopter UAV that could be regularly used at sea.
The MQ-8B is based on the 1.15 ton Schweitzer 330 manned helicopter. The MQ-8C has been under development by the same firm that produces the MQ-8B. The MQ-8C is supposed to be in service by 2014 and has already successfully carried out initial test flights. Proponents of the MQ-8C want a larger model because that would provide more endurance, greater stability in bad weather, and the ability to carry more weapons. The MQ-8B can carry 90 kg (200 pounds) of sensors and weapons. The MQ-8C would be able to carry about 5 times more. The MQ-8B has an endurance of 8 hours and a cruise speed of 200 kilometers an hour. The MQ-8C would have up to 3 times the endurance and about the same cruise speed.
It’s already been decided to arm the MQ-8B with the Griffin (a 16 kg/35 pound guided missile with a range of 8,000 meters) and the 11.4 kg (25 pound) 70mm guided missile (based on the World War II era 70mm unguided rocket), with a range of 6,000 meters. The MQ-8C could carry heavier weapons, like the 48.2 kg (106 pounds) Hellfire missile.
While the military has been slow to adopt helicopter UAVs, there is sufficient interest to keep the manufacturers at work on new models. The navy kept Fire Scout when the army dropped it because helicopters are more practical on most navy ships. Navy Fire Scouts have completed months of successful use on a frigate (in both the Atlantic and Pacific) and were recently in action over Libya and Afghanistan. However, the small size of the MQ-8B has limited its usefulness and proved to be more prone to wear and tear (resulting in more time spent on maintenance and less time ready for action). Note that the standard manned helicopter for ships is the ten ton SH-60 Seahawk. When flying at sea and operating off the back of a warship size does matter, and that’s the main reason for the MQ-8C. The Spanish discovered that the much lighter Skeldar V-200 was often better than no helicopter at all but was of limited usefulness in bad weather that involved high winds.