The full-size helicopter drones would be the first of their kind used by the Royal Australian Navy and would enhance its ability to conduct intelligence and reconnaissance operations.
The fleet of helicopter drones, which could cost more than $1 billion, would work in tandem with the navy’s 24 new MH-60R Seahawk Romeo helicopters now arriving in Australia under a $3.2bn deal.
The Northrop Grumman’s next-generation MQ-8C Fire Scout drone is under development but is expected to reach initial operating capability by the end of next year.
The navy is understood to be investigating their purchase but has made no final recommendation.
It is believed to be interested in using the drones on its future frigates, although they could also be deployed on its new Landing Helicopter Dock vessels.
“In terms of (Australia’s) interest, I know it’s been tied to the C5000 (Future Frigate) program as a potential feature requirement, not fully confirmed but it is in the discussion (and) perhaps there are other vessels that could benefit from the capability,” said Greg Black, a director of unmanned systems for Northrop Grumman.
The US Navy flight-test director for Fire Scout, David Belew, said the drone was able to stay on patrol for 12 hours at a time at up to 16,000 feet, allowing much longer surveillance than was possible with manned helicopters.
The US military operates 24 of the earlier B model of the Fire Scout, which were deployed in Afghanistan, and is expected to order the C models when they become operational. The US is eventually planning to have a one-for-one ratio between manned and unmanned helicopters on its ships.
Japan and several other countries are also interested in the C model of Fire Scout but no other country has placed firm orders for the drone, which uses the airframe of the Bell 407 helicopter.
The Fire Scout can carry mine detectors and be configured to carry rockets but its primary role is as an intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance platform for warships.
US Navy captain Jeff Dodge, who works on the Fire Scout program, said the unmanned helicopters would do the “dull, dirty and dangerous” jobs and would complement piloted helicopters.
“A lot of navies around the world are now looking at a lot of unmanned systems,” he said.
The Fire Scout would be most likely deployed on Australia’s new frigates, which are to be built in Australia in the early 2020s to replace the Adelaide-class and Anzac-class frigates.
Despite being unmanned, the Fire Scout is flown from the ground by qualified pilots and requires the same number of pilots and maintenance staff as are needed for manned helicopters.
“You can use a manned and unmanned team and really extend the mission performance and reduce the overall cost per flight hour because of the reliability and the time on station which the unmanned aircraft provides,” Mr Black said.
The Northrop Grumman MQ-8C Fire Scout (UAV) takes First flight on USS Jason Dunham (DDG 109)