Navy acquisition officials are in discussions with Northrop Grumman about acquiring an unmanned helicopter based on the Bell 407 civil helicopter for special operations use.
The possible sale is a rapid outgrowth of an effort Northrop and Bell began less than two years ago to demonstrate how the 407 could be converted into a remote-control or autonomous vehicle for surveillance and supply flights.
And as Northrop and Bell began testing a prototype — the so-called Fire-X — in December, the Navy was beginning a search for a longer-range, more capable unmanned helicopter. With months of flight testing data in hand, Northrop officials were able to pitch the unmanned system as the best candidate.
“They turned to us and said, ‘Tell us more about this Fire-X thing,’” said Mike Fuqua, director of business development for Northrop’s tactical unmanned systems.
As the military services have increasingly turned to unmanned systems in recent years, the need arose for vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft. Northrop developed one of the first to enter service. The Navy’s MQ-8B Fire Scout, based on the small Schweizer civil helicopter, has been used extensively in Afghanistan and operated from Navy ships.
One of the unmanned helicopters was lost in a surveillance operation over Libya in late June, with some reports indicating that it may have been shot down. The Navy has approved plans to install a missile system aboard the Fire Scout, but it also became apparent that an aircraft that could fly longer and farther and carry larger payloads was needed.
That played right into the hands of the work Northrop and Bell were doing. “We’d sort of seen where the services were heading, looking for more capability and endurance,” Fuqua said.
Testing of the Fire-X concept demonstrator at the military’s Yuma Proving Ground has gone well since December. Fuqua declined to detail the number of flights or flight hours, but said all of the test points have been achieved to date.
The aircraft is a stock 407 modified last year at Bell’s Xworx research and development facility in Arlington. The flight control technology Northrop developed for the Fire Scout was adapted to the larger Bell aircraft.
Northrop and Bell were aiming the development program toward the Army and Marines, but the Navy may be the first to buy it. If the Navy goes ahead with purchases, the Northrop-Bell aircraft would be redesignated the MQ-8C Fire Scout.
Bell declined to comment and referred all questions to Northrop.
Northrop would be the prime contractor, with Bell providing the base aircraft from its civil helicopter production facility in Mirabel, Quebec. Bell produces rotor blades, transmissions and other components for the aircraft in its Fort Worth-area plants. The company’s civil helicopter sales have slowed dramatically in the sluggish economy.
Northrop’s Fuqua said it hasn’t been determined which company will perform the unmanned modifications or where, but said it was possible Bell could do some of that work in Texas.
Bell’s worldwide service network and parts supply chain is also an attraction to the military.
Navy officials have received Northrop’s recommendations and are working on an acquisition plan to decide how many aircraft to buy and how soon, said Jamie Cosgrove, spokeswoman for the Naval Air Systems Command program office in Patuxent River, Md.
Money has been set aside in the Navy budget to pay for further development and acquisition of the unmanned aircraft, Cosgrove said.