The U.S. Navy conducted the first flight of a next-generation helicopter drone, which is designed to fly twice as long and has three times the payload capacity of the current model in the military arsenal.
The MQ-8C Fire Scout flew for seven minutes Thursday in restricted airspace at Naval Base Ventura County in Point Mugu, Calif. Shortly after, the Navy said, a second flight lasting nine minutes was also flown in a pattern around the airfield, reaching 500 feet altitude.
The tests were made to validate the autonomous control systems.
"First flight is a critical step in maturing the MQ-8C Fire Scout endurance upgrade before using the system operationally next year," said Capt. Patrick Smith, Fire Scout program manager, Naval Air Systems Command. "This system's evolution enhances how unmanned air systems will support maritime commanders."
The Fire Scout is a robotic spy chopper developed by Northrop Grumman Corp. engineers in Rancho Bernardo, Calif. Armed with high-powered cameras, radars and sensors, earlier versions of the aircraft were first deployed in 2011 to war zones in Afghanistan and Libya.
The Navy grounded the fleet of Fire Scouts last year after two of the aircraft crashed overseas within a week.
Currently, the Fire Scout is conducting at-sea deployment on antipiracy missions aboard Navy frigates.
The latest version of the Fire Scout, the "C" model, is based on a larger commercial airframe with additional fuel tanks and an upgraded engine. It is designed to be able to fly up to 12 hours or carry up to 2,600 pounds.
Northrop said the upgrade came after operators saw the need for a system that carried the same intelligence-gathering capabilities but can fly longer and carry more technology.
The Navy plans on purchasing 145 Fire Scouts, which cost around $15.3 million per aircraft.
Initial operating capability for the upgraded MQ-8C Fire Scout is planned for 2016, with a potential for early deployment in 2014, the Navy said.