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.
TFOT already covered Boeing A160 Hummingbird in May 2007 when it completed one of its test flights. TFOT also reported on other military unmanned aerial vehicle initiatives including work on airborne rearming of unmanned aerial vehicles, the armed Excalibur tactical unmanned aerial vehicle designed for use by the United States Army, the L-15 unmanned airship designed specifically for surveillance work, the electric powered TCUAV aerial surveillance system, and the canister-launched MONGURD UAV capable of carrying either surveillance equipment or weapons.
You can read more about the Hummingbird UAV on the Boeing Hummingbird page here and the goals of its design on the DARPA project page here.
Image: The Boeing A160T Hummingbird unmanned airborne system sits at the company’s facility in Victorville, Calif., during a media tour through the area. (Credit: Tony Romero/Boeing).