The United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is in the process of deploying its first Boeing A160T Hummingbird unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The new UAV, developed by Boeing in conjunction with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) looks like a traditional helicopter but it goes higher, stays airborn longer, travels farther, and runs more quietly than any helicopter in current use. Its biggest bonus – it doesn’t have a pilot that could be shut down.
The Hummingbird is 35 feet long with a 36 foot rotor diameter. It uses a Pratt & Whitney PW207 turboshaft engine and is designed to fly more than 2,500 nautical miles (around 2,900 regular miles) with a payload of 300 pounds (larger payloads are supported for shorter distances). It can remain airborne for more than 24 hours at a time and can fly up to 160 miles per hour (about 140 knots) at up to 30,000 feet above ground. Future versions could fly as high as 55,000 feet above the ground and remain airborne for as long as 48 hours. The current ceiling for most conventional helicopters is 20,000 feet and the longest flight endurance of a commercial helicopter is just over 23 hours.
The key to these improvements is Boeing’s new rotor design. Unlike conventional helicopters, the Hummingbird uses a variable speed rotor, allowing operators to slow the rate of rotation to save fuel and operate quietly or speed it up to travel as quickly as possible. The UAV uses a hingeless, rigid carbon fiber construction to allow this variation without inducing vibrational problems that would potentially damage or disable the craft.
SOCOM took delivery of ten Hummingbirds in November 2008. Initial use of the vehicles includes testing of the Foliage Penetration Reconnaissance Surveillance Tracking and Engagement Radar (FORESTER), a radar designed to detect people and vehicles moving under the cover of foliage. Hummingbirds are also being used as test beds for other DARPA projects including the Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance-Imaging System (ARGUS-IS) system.
Other potential Special Forces uses for the Hummingbirds include precision resupply missions and possibly, emergency medical evacuations (human payloads have not been tested at this point, so there are no immediate or near-term plans to use the vehicles for this purpose). Hummingbirds are not armed, but there is also a possibility that future iterations could include lightweight missiles or other small stealth weapons.
Janice Karin has a B.A in physics from the University of Chicago and a
M.S. in physics from the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to
extensive experience as a technical writer focused on development
tools, databases, and APIs, Janice has worked as a freelance reporter,
editor, and reviewer with contributions to a variety of technology
websites. One of her primary focuses has been on PDAs and mobile
devices, but she is interested in many other areas of science and