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New Pilotless Military Ranger-Series Helicopter

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Bell Helicopter and Northrop Grumman Corp. announced this week that they will work together to develop the Fire-X pilotless helicopter to demonstrate a new medium-range unmanned aerial system for the military. The aircraft will be based on the single-engine four-blade Bell 407 helicopter, adding more capability, payload and endurance to the systems employed in Northrop's smaller Fire Scout pilotless helicopter. The 407 is expected carry a 3,000-pound payload in pilotless form versus the Fire Scout's 600 pounds and the standard Bell's 2,347. The companies hope to fast-track the Fire-X's development by combining the established technologies represented in the Fire Scout's hardware and software with the 407's established (about 15 years in production) airframe. The plan also allows them to avoid the hurdles and costs associated with development of a clean-sheet design. The target market for the product is the United States Navy.

The Fire-X aims to enter an anticipated Navy competition next year, seeking to fill the role of a new medium-range unmanned aerial system. The piloted Bell 407 generally carries a maximum useful load of almost 2,350 pounds and can cruise at 133 knots. It has a maximum range of 330 nm. Development of the unmanned Fire-X version of the helicopter will be financed entirely by Northrop and Bell Helicopter, though external funding may be available if the effort wins a military contract.

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