The US Navy’s MQ-8C Fire Scout next-generation unmanned helicopter built by Northrop Grumman has achieved initial operational capability (IOC).

The IOC leads the way for fleet operations and training for the unmanned system, Naval Air Systems Command announced.

Based on the Bell 407 airframe, the MQ-8 Fire Scout, a sea-based, vertical-lift unmanned system was developed for the US Navy.

The helicopter is capable of providing reconnaissance, situational awareness, and precision targeting support for ground, air and sea forces.

US Navy Fire Scout programme manager captain Eric Soderberg: “This milestone is a culmination of several years of hard work and dedication from our joint government and industry team. We are excited to get this enhanced capability out to the fleet.”

MQ-8C offers enhanced endurance and payload capability when compared to its predecessor, the MQ-8B.

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The aircraft is designed to operate for up to 12 hours on station depending on payload. So far, the system has flown more than 1,500 hours, performing more than 700 sorties.

MQ-8C has the ability to complement the Sikorsky MH-60 manned helicopter by extending the range and endurance of ship-based operations.

Furthermore, the helicopter can be deployed with the US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs) to provide situational awareness and precision target support.

Northrop Grumman is expected to deliver a total of 38 MQ-8C aircraft to the US Navy in the coming years.

The navy also added that upgraded radar will be integrated into the MQ-8C to enable a larger field of view.

In addition, the radar will include digital modes such as weather detection, air-to-air targeting and a ground moving target indicator (GMTI).

The US Navy plans to deploy the MQ-8C aircraft on LCS vessels in the fiscal year 2021.

Last year, the unmanned helicopter completed developmental testing on USS Coronado (LCS 4).

According to Northrop Grumman, the Fire Scout system can deliver real-time intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and target-acquisition (ISR&T), laser designation, and battle management to tactical users.