The Northrop Grumman/Bell Helicopter Fire-X demonstrator achieved first flight Dec. 10 in Yuma, Ariz., just days after arriving there for flight testing, according to officials on the program team.
This is a major step toward the two teammates entering the evolving and potentially lucrative market of unmanned rotorcraft for cargo carriage or intelligence collection. Northrop approached Bell and crafted the jointly funded project in early 2010 with the goal of flying within a year.
“From initial concept to flying a prototype was extremely quick,” says Cathy Ferrie, director of Bell’s Xworx rapid prototyping division.
The aircraft, which also retains the ability to be piloted, was ferried to Yuma two weeks ago from Bell’s Xworx facility in Arlington, Texas, says Charles Shepard, director of technology business development for the rapid prototyping unit.
The Fire-X demonstrator, built on the commercial Bell 407 platform, was modified at Xworx with computers, actuators and other systems from prime contractor Northrop’s MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter. “Our philosophy was to be minimally invasive,” says Bob Davis, Northrop’s director of business development for air and land advanced concepts. “The physical elements of the aircraft between the cyclic and flight control surfaces have to be removed for it to be piloted,” he adds.
Following its arrival in Yuma days ago, the linkages were removed –—thus “demanning” the aircraft — and electric actuators connected up for unmanned flight.
The initial flight was intended to test the vehicle management system’s flight control software which was previously only ground tested in Northrop’s Rancho Bernardo simulation facility in California.
Currently in development, Fire-X is a fully autonomous, four-blade, single-engine unmanned helicopter. Like Fire Scout, it will carry an array of battlefield intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) sensors to support warfighters’ increased demands for enhanced situational awareness. Its extended cargo hauling (more than 2600 lbs external), maximum payload (up to 3000 pounds) and endurance (more than 14 hours when properly configured), however, will deliver additional mission flexibility to commanders on the ground.
Fire-X will also be backed by Bell Helicopter’s worldwide logistic support, training and industry-leading customer service.