The aircraft will port all of the avionics and data-links of the existing MQ-8B to the much larger Bell 407 helicopter airframe, says George Vardoulakis, Northrop’s tactical unmanned aircraft chief. The new airframe will greatly increase the MQ-8′s range and endurance-the on-station time will almost triple.
The USN contract calls for Northrop to build and test two developmental aircraft over the next 26 months. The company is also contracted to build six low rate production aircraft at the same time.
The USN, which is ordering the aircraft for its special operations forces, wants a total of 28 MQ-8Cs. The service will probably order a follow-on production contract in the fourth quarter of 2012, Vardoulakis says. The number of aircraft in that contract would depend on the USN’s budget.
The USN and Northrop are working on weaponizing the MQ-8B. If the service so chooses, those weapons could be integrated on to the C-variant. But the USN has also has the option of simply dropping the older-version airframe in favour of the MQ-8C, which is about twice the size of the B-model, Vardoulakis says.