July 13, 2006 Just three months ago we wrote about the AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter demonstrating the ability to control an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) weapon payload using the Unmanned Little Bird (ULB) UAV technology demonstrator as the remote vehicle. Now the Little Bird has achieved a major milestone in its development by flying unmanned for the first time. The payload for the first unmanned flight weighed 740 pounds, but could have carried an additional 550 pounds of payload. A more advanced configuration, which is expected to make its first flight later this summer, adds an additional 800 pounds of payload. Add all that up and the weapon payload could be as great as 2000 pounds, flown autonomously while its payload or sensor is guided from a remote site or another platform. We suddenly see a future of battlefields with flocks of warbirds, all networked, armed and very, very dangerous ... and not a pilot in sight!
Boeing demonstrated the capability at the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona, about 130 miles from the Boeing Rotorcraft facility in Mesa, Arizona, where Boeing has tested the aircraft, a modified MD 530F single-turbine helicopter, over the past two years with a safety pilot on board.
The aircraft lifted off from a helipad, hovered briefly and flew a programmed armed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission around the proving ground.
After the 20-minute flight, the aircraft returned to the helipad and landed within six inches of the planned recovery location. Prior to the fully unmanned demonstration, the ULB Demonstrator had flown more than 450 hours of engineering flight test time as a rapid prototyping platform, developing and integrating the sensors and systems necessary to create an operational unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).
"Expansion of the flight envelope to include true unmanned flight is a major milestone for the program and opens doors to a wide range of applications for this aircraft," said Dino Cerchie, Advanced Systems program manager for the ULB Demonstrator and A/MH-6X Little Bird programs, a part of Advanced Rotorcraft Systems for Boeing. "Previous autonomous demonstrations with this aircraft have included target identification, precision re-supply, communication relay and weapons firings."
The ULB Demonstrator mission payload for the first unmanned flight weighed more than 740 pounds, not including fuel weight. The aircraft lifted off at 3,000 pounds, but could have added an additional 550 pounds of payload.
The A/MH-6X configuration, which is expected to make its first flight later this summer, adds an additional 800 pounds of payload to the ULB Demonstrator design, giving it even greater flexibility in the field.
"The Unmanned Little Bird offers potential operators a low-cost, multi-purpose aircraft that will provide manned or unmanned options in combat, making it a versatile and easily deployable asset on future battlefields," said Cerchie. "We are clearly demonstrating the unmatched advantages of combining a cost-effective, proven airframe with emerging manned-unmanned network centric technologies."
The prototype aircraft is validating an autonomous flight control system that could be added to any manned aircraft. This automated flight control system includes integrated weapons systems, sensors and a ground control station. Cerchie said the entire package could be retrofitted to most existing rotorcraft.
Mark Hardesty, Boeing Rotorcraft Unmanned Systems test director in Mesa, said Boeing Advanced Systems is funding research and development of the ULB Demonstrator, which is demonstrating Level 5 UAV control capabilities, indicating it can be flown autonomously while its payload or sensor is guided from a remote site or another platform.