It took a few years, but the US Navy's beefier Fire Scout helicopter drone is finally ready for action... more or less. The military branch has declared that Northrop Grumman's MQ-8C has reached "initial operational capability," or the minimum state it needs to enter service. The new, Bell 407-based variant is considerably larger than its 8B predecessor, but it's also more capable. The 8C can last roughly twice as long in the air at 12 hours on station, and carry roughly three times the payload -- 701lbs, to be exact. It also packs new radar with a larger field of view and more modes, including air-to-air targeting.
The upgrades should help it cope with the sheer variety of missions the Navy has in mind, ranging from straightforward recon to targeting support for air, ground and naval units.
Don't expect to see one in active duty for a while. Although it's now clear for fleet ops and training, it won't deploy with littoral combat ships until fiscal 2021. Even so, it's reflective of just how much the Navy expects to depend on drones going forward. It wants UAVs available for as long as possible, and in as many roles as possible.