Northrop Grumman Corp. and Bell Helicopter have teamed up to develop Fire-X, a new pilotless helicopter for warfare-a medium-range, vertical unmanned aerial system (VUAS). The system combines features of two proven helicopters-one manned, the other unmanned. Fire-X will be based on the FAA-certified four-blade, single-engine Bell 407 helicopter platform and a larger version of the U.S. Navy’s MQ-8B Fire Scout pilotless helicopter currently produced by Northrop Grumman.
Fire-X is bigger, better, and faster than the MQ-8B Fire Scout. It integrates the proven unmanned systems architecture developed for the Fire Scout program (which has been under development for several years) with the Bell 407. In the 14 years the Bell 407 has been in service, nearly 1,000 aircraft have been used by corporations, hospitals, news organizations, movie studios, and law enforcement agencies worldwide.
Still in development, Fire-X is a fully autonomous, four-blade, single-engine unmanned helicopter which, like Fire Scout, can carry an array of battlefield intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) sensors. However, Fire-X has a greater cargo hauling capacity than the Fire Scout-more than 2600 lbs. external-and maximum payload of up to 3000 lbs. (compared with 600 lbs. for the Fire Scout). It is being designed to operate with nearly any type of current or future military standards-based control segment, including the Navy’s Tactical Control Station and the U.S. Army’s One System ground control station. With the combination of open controls, a wide variety of ISR sensors, large payload capacity, and a flight time of up to 14 hours, the Fire-X is expected to deliver a great deal of mission flexibility to commanders on the ground.
As the Fire-X is based on an existing Northrop pilotless system and the contemporary Bell Helicopter aircraft, many of the technological hurdles expected with the creation of a wholly new system will be bypassed. The result will be a compressed system development time. The first flight of Fire-X is expected by the end of 2010.
Northrop Grumman and Bell Helicopter are fully financing the development and demonstration program. Additional external funding is possible if the companies can win a potential Navy contract. The new system represents Northrop Grumman’s entry in an anticipated 2011 U.S. Navy solicitation to fill the Navy’s expressed interest in a new medium-endurance, medium-range VUAS.
Northrop’s El Segundo, Calif.-based Advanced Programs and Technology (AP&T) division is overseeing work on the Fire-X. This is where the pilotless technology was conceptualized in early development. Fire-X will be backed by Bell Helicopter’s global logistics support, training, and industry-leading customer service, which has been rated number one for the last 16 years.