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Friday, July 1, 2011

A160T Returns to the Air

By Douglas Nelms

Boeing

Boeing’s A160T (Hummingbird) unmanned aerial system (UAS) has been cleared to continue flying following an accident in Belize that ended the aircraft’s flights and testing of the DARPA Forester multiple canopy foliage-penetrating radar. The radar was designed to track targets on the ground in dense jungle and was undergoing a planned 45-day test program over the jungles of Belize.

The aircraft, military designation YMQ-18A, was being tested for the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) when it crashed on September 4, 2010—one week prior to the planned ending for the Forester tests. Testing had begun on August 1 using two A160T prototypes. At the time of the crash, the two aircraft involved in the testing had already completed 28 flights in 27 days for a total of 94 flight hours. This had allowed completion of between 90 and 95 percent of the testing required, a Boeing spokesman said.

In July 2010, a month before the Forester testing began, an A160 owned by the U.S. Army Aviation Applied Technology Directorate crashed on a flight line in California. The Army has stated a requirement for the A160T and said that the crash will not deter its planning to purchase those aircraft. As of May 31, the Hummingbird had accumulated over 160 flights and 400-plus flight hours. No findings on the cause of the accident have been released, and probably never will be for security reasons. However, Boeing said that operational and equipment adjustments have been made to resolve issues to the point that flights can be resumed.

SOCOM reportedly plans to purchase 20 A160Ts between fiscal years 2012 and 2017 to meet the need for long-endurance, VTOL unmanned aircraft. Boeing projects a range of 2,250 nautical miles with an endurance of more than 20 hours at 15,000 feet, and has demonstrated a flight of 18.7 hours.

The aircraft can carry a 300-lb payload the full 2,250 nm range, although for the Marines’ USA Cargo competition it demonstrated that it can carry 1,250 lbs over two 150-nm round trips, for a total of 2,500 lbs of cargo in fewer than five hours, operating autonomously on a pre-programmed mission.

Because of the significant time that has elapsed since the aircraft were grounded last September, current flights are being used to re-certify existing pilots and to train new pilots “because of all the activities that are going on between cargo and Argus and other flight test activities,” the spokesman said. The USMC cargo testing of the A160T involves a competitive program begun in December 2010 by NAVAIR to develop an aircraft to support Marine troops involved in Operation Enduring Freedom. The Cargo UAS program is to reduce the requirement to truck supplies to Marine units, reducing the exposure to improved explosive devices (IEDs) along routes of march. Boeing is in competition with a Lockheed Martin team using a Kaman K-MAX UAS.

Boeing is competing under a $29.9-million contact calling for two aircraft, three ground control stations plus spares and support. The first A160T for the QRA is aircraft number 21, which rolled off the production line in Mesa, Ariz. this past May. The second, number 22, rolled off the line in June. Lockheed Martin was awarded a $45.8-million contract for the competition. The two competitors will participate this summer in a quick reaction assessment (QRA) program to determine the winner.

The A160T is also involved in what the U.S. Army is calling the “Triple A” program—Army Argus A160T—to test the DARPA developed autonomous real-time ground ubiquitous surveillance-imaging system (ARGUS-IS) program. This is essentially a multi-gigapixel camera system that allows multiple cameras to simultaneously track multiple targets with real-time high resolution. The ARGUS-IS is currently being integrated into the A160T. Following integration and testing, the ARGUS-IS equipped A160T will be deployed to Afghanistan.

The A160T Hummingbird is a four-bladed turbine-powered rotorcraft UAS with a variable speed rotor system that allows the operator to fly the aircraft at optimum efficiency under different flight conditions. Frontier Systems in Irvine, Calif. originally developed it. The first 19 aircraft were hand built, first by Frontier Systems, then by Boeing at the Irvine facility. A standard gasoline engine powered the first seven before introduction of a turbine engine beginning with aircraft number eight. Boeing purchased Frontier Systems in May 2004 and moved production of the A160 to Mesa in 2010 because of the company’s expertise in rotary wing aircraft at the plant.

The first Mesa-produced aircraft, number 20, rolled off the production on March 17, 2011. With introduction of the turbine engine, the A160 was redesignated A160T. The two aircraft that went to Belize for Forester testing were from the original 19 produced in California.

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