Boeing MQ-18 Hummingbird (A160) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Helicopter
The Boeing Hummingbird UAV helicopter is actively being reviewed by various US defense branches.
Authored By Staff Writer; Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com
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.
Externally, the Hummingbird fields the same appearance as a conventional manned helicopter thanks to its largely unchanged shape from her Robinson R22 helicopter/Maverick UAV origins. The fuselage is smooth, tapered sharply at the front to form a nose cone and elegantly streamlined aft to form the bulk of the fuselage and empennage tail structure. The four-bladed main rotor sits close to the body atop the fuselage and just slightly ahead center. The undercarriage is made up of two retractable main landing gear legs (retracting rearwards) under amidships with a non-retracting tail wheel at the rear. The powerplant and gearbox are centered within the fuselage with the former aspirated by a pair of side-mounted intakes. The two-bladed tail rotor is set at the aft-most position on the aircraft, facing port side. A vertical tail fin is positioned under the empennage structure and holds the tail wheel. Payloads can be carried directly under the fuselage between the main landing gear legs. The Hummingbird sports a structural length of 35 feet with the main rotor showcasing a 36 foot diameter. Her maximum take-off weight is listed at 6,500lbs. Maximum cruise ceiling is expected to be 30,000 feet though, in its current configuration, the UAV's engine is rated at 20,000 feet. Maximum cruise speed is 189 miles per hour with a 2,589 mile range. Hover altitude is reported to be 20,000 feet.
Boeing claims that their Hummingbird can outperform most any capability inherent in modern helicopters found over the battlefield today. The UAV surpasses both the service ceiling (by some 10,000 feet) and loiter times (24 hours +) of that as showcased by contemporary rotary wing systems. Attention has also been given to the noise levels produced by the Hummingbird so that it promotes less of an audible presence than that of her larger conventional sisters. One of the unique facets of the Hummingbird is its self-adjusting rotor speed technology, allowing the operator to react to changing altitude conditions "on the fly". The rotors can have their revolutions per minute adjusted to supply an optimal rotation (lesser or greater) depending on external conditions, saving fuel in the process and maximizing the Hummingbird's time aloft. Boeing has aptly labeled this feature the "Optimum Speed Rotor" (OSR) system.
Much like a conventional helicopter, the Hummingbird can take off and land without the need of a runway and, unlike other UAVs, does not need a launch catapult or retrieval system. This quality makes her a positive addition to any mobile army fighting along a dynamic front, particularly those groups cut off from traditional battlefield resources. Precise control also assures commanders that the Hummingbird can resupply soldiers in just about any battlefield environment including mountainous regions and urban settings. The Hummingbird has also generated interest for ship-borne use on navy vessels in need of an active, high-altitude, long endurance "eye in the sky".
As of this writing (2012), the Hummingbird is still undergoing active development near Victorville, California. The United States Army (US Army Aviation Applied Technology Directorate), US Navy (Naval Air Systems Command), US Special Forces, the US Department of Homeland Security and several foreign entities have shown an interest in Boeing's new and revolutionary rotary-wing UAV system.
In December of 2010, the US DoD (Naval Air Systems Command) formally announced a $30 million contract ($29,935,037) to Frontier Systems, Incorporated for the procurement of two Hummingbirds to support ongoing American military actions in Afghanistan. Deliveries are expected sometime after August of 2011.
In March of 2011, the US DoD (Army) formally announced a $14 million contract ($13,999,000) to Frontier Systems, Incorporated for the procurement of two upgrade packages concerning the YMQ-18A prototypes. This will bring the two units up to a "Block II" configuration.
In mid-2012, the Hummingbird product was halted by US Army authorities. In December of 2012, a review of the project left the A160 out of the US Army's long term plans.