December 2004/January 2005
Volume 03, Issue 8
|Integrated Defense Systems|
Give it a hand (or don't)
Newest rotorcraft idea excels in manned, unmanned operations
BY HAL KLOPPER
When reporter David Harvey lifted off in October aboard the "Unmanned Little Bird," he knew he could be in for one exciting ride.
"Outstanding, outside-of-the-box thinking," he said after the flight in the Unmanned Little Bird, a Boeing project that combines the capabilities of manned or unmanned flight aboard a proven MD 530F manned helicopter. "This approach is spot-on target for future developments."
He confirmed that message to his readers at rotorhub.com and uvonline.com a few days later, writing, "Boeing's Mesa [Ariz.] division had sufficient confidence in their unmanned/ manned MD 530F 'Little Bird' demonstrator to fly this reporter on only its fourth autonomously guided mission."
"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.
Cerchie said the unique proof-of-concept demonstrator, developed and flown less than a year after program go-ahead, has been flying since Sept. 8 and made its first autonomous takeoff and landing Oct. 16. Since testing began, the Unmanned Little Bird has flown more than 40 hours as a fully operational unmanned air vehicle (UAV). A human safety pilot on board during flights monitors the aircraft's performance but does 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.
DIFFERENT FROM OTHER UAVs
"We're building on the company's strengths in network-centric operations to expand the aircraft's communication relay mission versatility," he said. The design already 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. Cerchie noted that the Little Bird assignment would also include long-endurance intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions using heavier, more capable sensors given its payload capability.
Boeing is in negotiations with the U.S. Army's Applied Aviation Technology Directorate (AATD) to develop the requirements for future weapons capabilities on UAVs. "The safety pilot helps to mitigate the risk typically associated with this type of testing," Cerchie said. "It's a proven airframe with proven weapon systems. Testing can concentrate on the UAV command-and-control-related integration aspects of remotely releasing weapons."
The design is the integration of many off-the-shelf components into an open-architecture flight control hardware system. The Mesa group teamed with the Seattle Unmanned Systems Open Mission Management group to create a very capable UAV system. The ground system is also open-architecture and contains the critical software structure desired by all of the services for future growth and commonality. It provides Level V UAV control, where it can direct the UAV from take-off to landing and also remotely control the payload or sensor aboard the vehicle. The Boeing-developed flight control laws provide the aircraft with a robust 4-axis autopilot when manned, along with the unmanned capability.
One candidate for sensor control duty is the Boeing-produced AH-64D Apache Longbow combat helicopter, which has already demonstrated Level IV capabilities (remote control of other UAVs) and Level II control-the ability to receive sensor data from the Unmanned Little Bird.
"This is a great example of what can be accomplished when the best of Boeing comes together," said Waldo Carmona, director and general manager of Boeing Advanced Army Systems. "We are clearly demonstrating the unmatched advantages of combining a cost-effective, proven airframe and the Boeing Open Mission Management System with emerging manned-unmanned network-centric operations technologies for the 21st century."
A NEW DIMENSION
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, Carmona said. He noted that the Unmanned Little Bird could be configured to carry a variety of payloads and to launch weapons in combat.
The prototype aircraft, which will continue to demonstrate unmanned capabilities over the next year, already is validating 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. Future testing will demonstrate a wide range of missions, including verifying the aircraft's ability to perform surveillance communications relay.
What is it like to fly without a human pilot guiding the mission? "With safety pilot Dave Guthrie in the right-hand seat, the aircraft guided itself around a mountainous course to the north of Phoenix, demonstrated various turning and climb-and-descent maneuvers, and returned automatically to Boeing's plant to make a perfect landing in gusty wind conditions," reporter Harvey said.
No need to give this Unmanned Little Bird a hand. That's reserved for the team that put the project together.
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