A/MH-6X / MH/AH-6X Unmanned Little Bird (ULB)
An unmanned Little Bird helicopter could fly nap-of-the-earth autonomously using software-enabled control (SEC) technology developed for unmanned air vehicles under a US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and US Air Force Research Laboratory project. The software enables a UAV to fly low, hugging the terrain, determining safe landing zones using vision-based algorithms and avoiding known and pop-up threats. Boeing's SEC developers are evaluating the Little Bird, based on MD Helicopters' MD530F Maverick; an unmanned variant of the Robinson R22; and the A160 Hummingbird rotary-wing UAV. SEC is a standards-based middleware that could be used for complex mission management.
"We have something special in development," said Dino Cerchie, Unmanned Little Bird program manager. "We're already demonstrating the ability to integrate and use advanced sensors in a versatile mission equipment package." MEPs are combinations of equipment, sensors and/or weapons to carry out a specific mission.
The unique proof-of-concept demonstrator, developed and flown less than a year after program go-ahead, has been flying since 08 September 2004 and made its first autonomous takeoff and landing 16 October 2004. By early 2005 the Unmanned Little Bird had flown more than 40 hours as a fully operational unmanned air vehicle (UAV). A human safety pilot on board during flights monitored the aircraft's performance but did not actively fly the aircraft. In autonomous flight, the aircraft is programmed to fly a mission and can go from takeoff to landing without being controlled remotely.
The Unmanned Little Bird design has the flexibility to perform missions from cargo re-supply using its 2,000 pound rated cargo hook to target engagement using existing qualified weapon systems. The flexible configuration is what sets the Unmanned Little Bird apart from all other UAVs. The Little Bird assignment would also include long-endurance intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions using heavier, more capable sensors given its payload capability.
The Unmanned Little Bird would add a new dimension to the already-proven capabilities of Mission Enhanced Little Birds flown by the U.S. Army's Special Operations forces. The Unmanned Little Bird could be configured to carry a variety of payloads and to launch weapons in combat.
The prototype aircraft, which continued to demonstrate unmanned capabilities during 2004 and 2005, validated an autonomous flight control system that could be added easily and economically to other manned aircraft. Flight testing already has shown the aircraft's ability to transport external cargo loads. Additional testing demonstrated a wide range of missions, including verifying the aircraft's ability to perform surveillance communications relay.
The Boeing Unmanned Little Bird aircraft had flown nearly 100 hours as of January 2005. The goal of a new $1.6 million joint program with the U.S. Army's Aviation Applied Technology Directorate (AATD) during 2005 was to further refine the requirements for safe and accurate unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) weapons deployment. The Unmanned Little Bird is perfectly suited for doing high risk prototype testing to benefit future UAV systems. The research will enhance the aircraft'ss ability to perform a wider range of missions suited for UAVs.
Data gathered during testing also will allow Boeing and AATD to better understand a variety of technical challenges associated with communicating with UAVs. Weapons being considered include the Hellfire and Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System missiles, and the GAU-19A gun. The Unmanned Little Bird, a modified MD 530F helicopter, is a fully instrumented UAV test-bed aircraft. The unique air vehicle combines the advantages of a UAV with a combat-proven manned helicopter and qualified weapon systems that have been used effectively on Little Birds over the years.
The Boeing Company achieved a major milestone in the development of its Unmanned Little Bird (ULB) technology demonstrator by flying the versatile aircraft unmanned for the first time. Boeing demonstrated the capability 30 June 2006 at the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, Ariz., about 130 miles from the Boeing Rotorcraft facility in Mesa, Ariz., 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. 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 was expected to make its first flight in the summer of 2006, added an additional 800 pounds of payload to the ULB Demonstrator design, giving it even greater flexibility in the field.
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