Among the myriad programs and initiatives in the spotlight at the Association of the United States Army Winter Symposium and Exposition, held Feb. 23-25, 2011 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., was the A160T “Hummingbird” Unmanned Aerial System. Representatives from The Boeing Company used the venue to provide an update on upcoming service testing with Hummingbird.
The system was developed under the auspices of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) with early interest from the special operations community.
According to Jeff Shelton, A160T Business Development lead at Boeing, recent program activities have included the movement of early A160T manufacturing activities from Irvine, Calif., to Mesa, Ariz. Near term plans are to move program management to Arizona this summer, placing the entire program at the same facility as Apache.
“We already have six air vehicles moving down the production line in Mesa,” Shelton explained. “The first two will come off the line in March and then there will be one a month coming off the line following that.”
Shelton noted that two of the initial aircraft are identified for the upcoming Marine Corps “cargo demonstration.”
On Dec. 3, 2010, Boeing announced that U.S. Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) had awarded the company a $29.9 million contract for Cargo Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) services to support the U.S. Marine Corps. Under that award, Boeing will provide two A160T Hummingbird unmanned vehicles, three ground control stations, spares, training and support.
In addition to the A160T award, NAVAIR also awarded industry partners Lockheed Martin and Kaman Aerospace a $45.8 million contract to provide K-MAX® unmanned aircraft systems for that Marine Corps evaluation of unmanned cargo resupply in an operational forward deployed environment.
“We sold two aircraft to the Marine Corps and we were awarded that contract back in December,” Shelton continued. “We are also in discussions with the Army about deployment to OEF for an ISR mission. And we are in discussions with [United States] Special Operations Command for deployment to be determined for another ISR mission.”
As part of the upcoming Army ISR mission, Shelton pointed to a DARPA contract to integrate the DARPA-developed ARGUS [Autonomous Real Time Ground Ubiquitous Sensor] pod onto one aircraft. DARPA is now preparing to turn that aircraft over to the Army for deployment.
“Special Operations Command recently gave two of their aircraft to the Army PM UAS and the Army has recently announced intentions to sole-source a contract to us to upgrade those air vehicles also,” Shelton added. “So it will most likely end up being a three-aircraft deployment.”
In a recent capabilities demonstration, the company flew the platform for 18.7 hours with a 300-pound payload, landing with 90 minutes of fuel remaining.
“So we know we can fly over 20 hours with a 300-pound payload,” he said. “That being said, the exact endurance would be dependent on what our customer wanted on the platform. Anything they would put on there additional would add weight, which would reduce that endurance time.”
Emphasizing the design’s multi-mission platform capabilities beyond logistics or electro-optical missions, he noted that the aircraft has also been flown with “dummy” Hellfire missiles mounted on stub wings “to demonstrate center of gravity and aerodynamics. We know we can do it aerodynamically and weight-wise, but have not yet integrated and tested the weapon system on it.”
“It is something that we feel customers will have an interest in, as part of the multi-mission capabilities,” he added. “We believe they might want to be looking at something and have the ability to strike that thing as well.”
Explaining that not all six of the aircraft currently on the production line have assigned customers, he observed, “About a year and a half ago, Boeing saw a huge demand for VTOL [vertical takeoff and landing] UAS. We knew that customers wanted them. We also knew that, when customers wanted them, they wanted them now. They did not want to wait 18 – 24 months for them. So the company decided to invest company funds to stand up a production line.”
“We intend to keep the first one for ourselves, so we have our own test and development aircraft,” he said. “Then, the second and third ones, which will be ships ‘21’ and ’22’ in the life of the program are sold to the Marine Corps. Then, the following 19 aircraft that we have committed to building have not been sold at this point.”
Referencing a recent announcement by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Shelton pointed to “a refocusing of funds” within the DoD.
“In that announcement he mentioned a large need for standing up programs for VTOL UAS – primarily within the Army and the Navy. The president’s budget request put a lot of money toward those capabilities. So we are looking forward to any kind of competition in the near future for that capability. And we intend to continue building those ‘white tails’ until we do find a customer for them,” he said.