Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC) has a second Fire Scout locked, loaded, and ready for flight tests.

Less than a month after helping the Navy test-fly its first upgraded Fire Scout robotic helicopter, Northrop announced Monday that its new birds have taken another hop toward operational status. Northrop sent the Navy a second robotic helicopter this week. If all goes well, the new and improved Fire Scout could be ready for real-world operations sometime next year.

The new and improved MQ-8C Fire Scout. Source: Northrop Grumman

Northrop designed the upgraded Fire Scout, designated the MQ-8C, to fly twice as long and carry three times more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment than the existing MQ-8B Fire Scout. The new bird carries more fuel tanks than the original, feeding into an upgraded engine, enabling the MQ-8C to fly for up to 12 hours or carry up to 2,600 pounds of payload.

Upgrades like these don't come cheap. The U.S. Navy has already invested $154 million in paying to develop an improved Fire Scout. Northrop also expects to charge more for each Fire Scout it sells to the Navy (which has ordered a total of 14 of the next-gen helos, and plans to purchase 30 eventually). Estimates suggest the next-gen MQ-8C could cost about 10% more than its predecessor -- perhaps $11.5 million apiece. And yet, it could still be a bargain.

Fire Scout is a win-win
The Navy originally planned to equip its new Littoral Combat Ships with Fire Scouts, you see, and assumed it would need each LCS to carry a pair of Fire Scouts to cover the surface area an LCS would need to recon. At MQ-8B prices, that would have added about $20 million to the cost of an LCS equipped for such missions.

Now here's the good news: The MQ-8C's more robust capabilities (remember -- it's got twice the flying time of the MQ-8B) now have the Navy thinking that it may be able to get by with just a single Fire Scout per LCS. So even at $11.5 million a pop, the Navy should be saving money from the upgrade.

Plus, by not having to tote around two robotic whirlybirds to accomplish its mission, and LCS will have extra room aboard to carry other mission modules -- extra cannon, more missiles, or perhaps even an armed MH-60R Seahawk helicopter to back up the unmanned, unarmed Fire Scout.

The new bird's additional capabilities, and higher price tag, should make it more attractive to Pentagon buyers operating in a constrained spending environment. Not even counting international sales, or sales to other services (the current Fire Scout is also on duty in Afghanistan), this could easily turn into a $345 million product for Northrop.