Military’s unmanned copter claims endurance record, completes tests

The Army’s unmanned A160T Hummingbird helicopter has successfully completed all planned phase I flight test demonstrations which included an 18.7-hour endurance flight on May 14-15 that will be claimed as a world endurance record for unmanned aerial vehicles in the weight class of 1,102 to 5,511 pounds.

On May 9 flight, the A160, which is being developed under a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program, achieved another important demonstration milestone by hovering out of ground effect at 16,700 feet density altitude for over seven minutes. The gas-turbine-powered A160 flew the demonstrations autonomously.

During the 18.7- hour flight, the aircraft carried a 300-pound internal payload with much of the flight conducted at an altitude of 15,000ft.  The May 9 flight lasted a total of just under three hours, DARPA said in a release.

The altitude and endurance capability of the A160T Hummingbird, combined with the ability to hover at altitude and land and takeoff vertically while carrying a significant payload weight, provides the U.S. military with a unique set of capabilities not now present in any operational aircraft. The A160T can carry multiple sensor payloads simultaneously, to perform missions such as persistent intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition, communications relay, direct attack and other missions, DARPA said.

The recently completed flight test program started in June 2007 and has included a total of 14 flights and over 60 flight hours on the principal flight test vehicle, A007. The long endurance flight marks the end of a set of proof of concept demonstrations that has also included flight at a maximum speed of 142 knots, carriage of a 1,000 pound payload over almost 600 miles during an eight-hour flight, and the high-altitude hover out of ground effect.

The Hummingbird, which is built by Boeing, features what the company calls an optimum speed rotor technology that significantly improves overall performance efficiency by adjusting the rotor’s speed at different altitudes, gross weights and cruise speeds. The autonomous unmanned aircraft, measuring 35 feet long with a 36-foot rotor diameter, eventually will fly more than 140 knots with a ceiling of 25,000 to 30,000 ft. (high hover capability up to 15,000 ft.) for up to 20 hours.

So what’s next? The A160 program will now begin an eight-month bridge phase to consolidate vehicle technology and reliability for the aircraft’s use with a number of sensor programs. The program plans an additional 60 hours of flight envelope expansion and 250 hours of ground testing and will undertake a number of system improvements modifications.

News of this latest unmanned aviation development comes on the heels of a Government Accountability Office report that said a ton of work needs to be done by military, federal and civil aviation groups if the rapidly growing unmanned aircraft community is allowed routine access to public airspace.    In a wide-ranging report on the impact of unmanned aircraft on the country’s commercial airspace, congressional watchdogs at the GAO last week called on Congress to create an overarching body within Federal Aviation Administration to coordinate unmanned aircraft development and integration efforts.  

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