The Navy's first aircraft carrier-capable unmanned fighter jet is still several years away, but its first carrier-launched helicopter is already in service and on its fifth deployment in places like Afghanistan and Africa (one was even shot down over Libya in 2011 while conducting surveillance and reconnaissance during the civil war there). The Navy currently owns roughly 30 of these little 24-foot-long unmanned, semi-autonomous helicopters, known as the MQ-8B Fire Scout, which it currently uses as non-weaponized, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms around the world.
At Sea-Air-Space, Northrop Grumman unveiled the first scale model of the next iteration in the Fire Scout series, the MQ-8C. At nearly twice the size of its predecessor (its airframe is borrowed from the Bell 407 civilian helicopter, which in some variations can seat seven passengers), the MQ-8C is a real glimpse at the future of unmanned tactical helicopter flight. And for the Navy, which plans to integrate its Fire Scouts into its next generation of combat ships (in fact, its new Littoral Combat Ships more or less depend on an unmanned vertical takeoff and landing vehicle), the MQ-8C is also a way of maintaining a capability while hopefully driving down long-term costs.
"UAVs have a really good story from an affordability perspective," says Mike Fuqua, director of business development for Northrop Grumman's tactical unmanned systems. While they do require a shipboard maintenance team and operating crew, systems like Fire Scout are generally lighter and more fuel-efficient than manned helicopters, can devote more space to better and more complex sensor payloads, can be constructed from existing commercial components (like that Bell 407 airframe), and are tactically less vulnerable to boot. Had a manned ISR aircraft been shot down over Libya in 2011, the associated costs could've been extremely high -- up to and including the incalculable cost of human life. For this reason alone, the Fire Scout, though not inexpensive (total program cost stood at $2.8 billion as of the end of 2012), will likely continue to receive Navy support.
The lull in Apple announcements isn't helping.