Boeing MQ-18 Hummingbird (A160) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Helicopter
The Boeing Hummingbird UAV helicopter is actively being reviewed by various US defense branches.
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The A160 Hummingbird is a rotary-winged unmanned aerial vehicle that supplies the benefits of conventional UAV systems with that of modern battlefield helicopters. The Hummingbird projects a smaller target, enhanced speed, improved engine efficiency and provides capabilities beyond that of current-generation, full-sized rotary-wing systems. Additionally, as a UAV system, the Hummingbird keeps her flight crew safely away from combat and can provide pinpoint delivery of various payloads to forces in need along a front. Beyond her cargo-carrying capabilities, the Hummingbird promotes versatility and can tackle sorties involving intelligence gathering, reconnaissance and surveillance of the enemy or battlefield (in real-time), act as a mobile aerial communications relay for ground forces and provide target acquisition as needed. It is said that the Hummingbird also maintains a largely autonomous presence on the battlefield, negating much of the human interaction inherent in other UAVs, programmed to make "decisions" during its flight in finding the best avenue for completing a given objective.
The A160's origins lay in Frontier Systems, Incorporated development of their Maverick UAV, a converted form of their Robinson R22 two-seat, manned civilian helicopter product and forerunner to the A160 UAV. The Maverick achieved its first unmanned flight in 1998, just one year after the program had officially started. Internal systems developed for the Maverick UAV were later utilized in the upcoming A160. The Maverick was then acquired by the American military with at least four having served (or possibly still serving) with the US Navy in an unknown capacity.
First flight of the A160 was recorded in January of 2002 and early examples were fitted with an automobile-type, gasoline-fueled engine of 4-cylinder and 6-cylinder breeds tied to a three-bladed rotor assembly. In 2003, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded Frontier Systems a contract worth $75 million dollars to produce and test up to four A160 prototypes. However, Boeing absorbed Frontier Systems in 2004 and, in effect, added the Hummingbird to their burgeoning UAV product line. The Hummingbird served, for a time, under the Boeing Phantom Works banner and, later, fell under Boeing's Advanced Systems, a component of Boeing's Integrated Defense Systems.
The revised and improved A160T ("T" to indicate its new turbine powerplant) began flight testing in June of 2007 and, in 2008, she set an endurance world record for a UAV in this weight class, amassing 18.7 total hours of flight time. On September 27th, 2007, one of the A160T prototypes was lost in a crash when a sensor data ceased responding with the flight computer. In March of 2010, the Hummingbird completed an evaluation for the US Marines of her cargo-carrying capabilities when delivering some 2,500lbs in two 150-nautical mile sorties between a pair of simulated Forward Operating Bases (FOB). What made this test wholly unique was that the Hummingbird operated through its preprogrammed mission settings and was more or less completely autonomous. On July 28th, 2010, another A160T prototype crashed after losing control. In August of 2010, a pair of Hummingbirds, fitted with the new "Forrester" radar system, was flight tested in Belize. The radar, also currently development, was being tested for its ability to scan through dense foliage. However, these flight tests resulted in yet another crash of an A160T and thusly ending the tropical evaluation prematurely.
Despite the setbacks, production is reported to have already begun at Boeing's Mesa, Arizona facility as of March 2010. Its formal US military designation will be "YMQ-18A" and the powerplant will be a Pratt & Whitney PW207D turboshaft engine.