The United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is in the process of deploying its first Boeing A160T Hummingbird unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The new UAV, developed by Boeing in conjunction with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) looks like a traditional helicopter but it goes higher, stays airborne longer, travels farther, and runs more quietly than any helicopter in current use.
The A160 Hummingbird Unmanned Aerial Vehicle looks like a helicopter but is unlike any other helicopter on the market today. It can reach higher altitudes, hover for longer periods of time, go greater distances and operate much more quietly than current helicopters. And it features a unique optimum speed rotor technology that enables the Hummingbird to adjust the RPM (Revolutions Per Minute) of the rotor blades at different altitudes and cruise speeds.
The A160 joined Boeing’s line of UAVs in May 2004 with the acquisition of Frontier Systems Inc., at Irvine, Calif. The aircraft’s unique characteristics address current and emerging requirements of the U.S. armed forces, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and international military and security organizations.
A Boeing Phantom Works team called Advanced Unmanned Systems-Concept Exploration is developing the A160 under a contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The Hummingbird is designed to fly 2,500 nautical miles with endurance in excess of 24 hours and a payload of more than 300 pounds. The autonomously-flown A160 is 35 feet long with a 36-foot rotor diameter. It will fly at an estimated top speed of 140 knots at ceilings up to 30,000 feet, which is about 10,000 feet higher than conventional helicopters can fly today. Future missions for the A160 include reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition, communications relay and precision re-supply.
The A160 flew for the first time in January 2002 at a former U.S. Air Force base at Victorville, Calif., where flight-testing of the Hummingbird continues. The A160′s ability to stay aloft a long time at high altitudes is drawing considerable interest from the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Special Operations Forces.
Potential customers are also paying a lot of attention to the Hummingbird’s unique optimal speed rotor system. During flight, an operator can vary the RPM of the A160′s rotors (speed them up or slow them down) at different altitudes to improve overall efficiency and save fuel. This is quite a departure from conventional rotor systems, which tend to have a fixed rotor RPM regardless of altitude.