Northrop Grumman’s MQ-8C extended-endurance Fire Scout unmanned aircraft, based on the Bell 407 light commercial helicopter, made its first flights Oct. 31 at NAS Point Mugu, Calif. The aircraft flew twice to validate the autonomous control systems.

Both flights, the first lasting 7 min. and the second 9 min., involved flying a pattern around the airfield, the unmanned aircraft reaching an altitude of 500 ft.

The MQ-8C has twice the endurance and three times the payload of the MQ-8B, which is based on the smaller Sikorsky/Schweitzer S-333 light helicopter. The aircraft will be able to fly for 12 hr. or carry a payload up to 2,600 lb. The MQ-8B unmanned systems and ground station are reused.

Development of the extended-endurance Fire Scout is a U.S. Navy Rapid Deployment Capability effort in response to an urgent operational requirement to provide maritime-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support at longer ranges for special-warfare units.

The requirement was to field the MQ-8C in 24 months, and first flight took place 18 months after contract award. Initial operational capability is planned for 2016, with the potential for early deployment by the fourth quarter of fiscal 2014, says the Navy, which plans to deploy 28 of the air vehicles.

Changes to the Bell 407 include additional fuel capacity, uprated 700-shp. Rolls-Royce M250-C47E engine with dual-channel digital control, and reliability improvements. The majority of MQ-8B avionics and payloads have been integrated with the larger air vehicle.

The MQ-8C will complete ground testing at Point Mugu, and be integrated with a DDG-51 Burke-class destroyer for a maritime assessment before deployment, says the Navy. The aircraft could also fly from littoral combat ships. The smaller MQ-8B Fire Scout is deployed operationally from Perry-class frigates.