This Full-Size Helicopter Is Actually A Drone

The next big thing in drones? Bigger drones.

The new MQ-8C Fire Scout looks so much like a normal helicopter that it took me two days of wandering the 2013 Sea-Air-Space convention floor to even notice it. In fact, the latest evolution of Northrup Grumman’s naval drone looks so much like the past of aeronautics that it’s easy to miss how it’s the future.

The mock-up on display had sensors ideal for surveillance, which is what the Fire Scout’s smaller predecessor currently does for the U.S. Navy. But the new, larger Fire Scout will also be able to do everything a helicopter can already do, including carrying medical personnel for emergency airlifts, and it will do some things they can’t, like fly longer distances by carrying extra fuel instead of people. The Fire Scout is yet another look at the future of aviation, in which vehicles are driven not by human occupants but instead by intelligent machines or remote pilots.

Mockup of the MQ-8C Cockpit
Mockup of the MQ-8C Cockpit Kelsey D. Atherton

The new Fire Scout contains about 95 percent of the same guidance controls and software as its half-size sibling. The biggest innovation of the MQ-8C? Taking all that already-existing technology and putting it in a much larger body.

The full-sized display version is a non-functioning mock-up, so it’s safe to say the production models will look different. The final version and this mock-up will have something in common: the same airframe, from the commercially available Bell 407 Helicopter. Used for everything from medical evacuation to patrolling with Iraq’s new airforce, the particular one converted for the mockup came from a Texas police force.

This is an example of what I like to think of as the Gillette model of design—introducing a new model that’s only slightly different than the one that came before, like going from four to five blades in a razor. There was a lot of that on display at the expo: The latest throwbot and this improved satellite reciever followed that pattern, and in a way the new Fire Scout is the same. The hard part of the technology is creating a system that can fly a helicopter body. The major change in the new version is that it’s now controlling a much, much larger body.

Because even the most modern of military aircraft experience problems with onboard pilots, expect to see more classic military craft converted to unmanned aerial systems in the future.

Kelsey D. Atherton

Kelsey D. Athertonis a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work on drones, lethal AI, and nuclear weapons has appeared in Slate, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.