December 2004/January 2005
Volume 03, Issue 8
Boeing's Concept Exploration pioneers new UAV development with the Hummingbird and the Maverick.
BY GLEN GOLIGHTLY
It may not look particularly high-tech, but a nondescript industrial park warehouse in Irvine, Calif., could be housing the future of flight.
Inside the building, Phantom Works' Advanced Unmanned Systems-Concept Exploration, a small operation derived from a Boeing-acquired company called Frontier Systems Inc., has everything it needs to design and build unmanned aerial vehicles.
The 100-person group is currently working on the A160 Hummingbird, an unmanned helicopter, and the Maverick, a test bed based on a commercial helicopter. Amazing as they are, these two aircraft aren't the most important components in imagining and building the future of flight.
"It's the people here," said Dina Hyde, general manager for the group. "This is the most amazing group of talented, motivated and creative people I've ever worked with."
One of Hyde's missions is to blend the resources of Boeing with the nimble capabilities of a small company like Frontier. She describes herself as a temporary "buffer" between the former Frontier employees and Boeing as they acclimatize to working as part of an aerospace giant.
"There's a lot of mandated training and other required items from Boeing," she said. "I'm gradually introducing this to the new employees so they're not overwhelmed and can keep up the work we've been doing."
START OF A NEW VENTURE
The nucleus of Advanced Unmanned Systems-Concept Exploration comes from Frontier, purchased by Boeing in May. Frontier and its founder, Abe Karem, were known in the UAV field for innovation, along with rapid design and prototyping of aircraft. Boeing continues a contract that Frontier had from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop the A160 Hummingbird.
Even though the 70 Frontier employees joined a company with more than 150,000 employees worldwide, the small-company spirit and can-do attitude remains. If there's a job to be done, everyone pitches in, regardless of responsibility or job code. Even management takes a hands-on approach.
"I helped hang a screen in the conference room," said Steve Glusman, A160 and Maverick program manager. "That's the attitude here. Engineers work beside technicians turning wrenches."
Even the support staff find themselves delving into new areas and learning new skills.
Eric Holcomb, a new Boeing employee and a procurement agent, likes the fast pace and unpredictability of working for Concept Exploration. He started almost four years ago as a driver for Frontier.
"If we can't make it, we buy it," Holcomb said. "I buy everything from engine parts to software, so the challenge is to learn quickly about them."
Tori Kohut completed the Boeing Career Foundation Program, a Boeing management program for recent college graduates shortly before being assigned to the new group in Irvine. She specializes in financial analysis, but her new duties also include helping Frontier make the transition into Boeing's accounting system.
"You have to be flexible here, because every day is different," she said. "We're still getting settled in and setting up processes. It's fun because everyone is so upbeat and enthusiastic."
THE FOUNDING PHILOSOPHY
The group still follows Karem's method of exposing everyone to different aspects of technology.
"I like to challenge people," said Karem, who now acts as a consultant. "When you give them work outside their expertise, they grow and you get a better product."
Most of the engineers are in their 20s and many are graduates of big-name engineering schools such as MIT or Stanford. Hyde, who previously oversaw supplier management and procurement for Phantom Works, said they're an enthusiastic bunch who could work anywhere.
"A lot of engineers are here because they love flying and the chance to work in this environment," she said. "They could probably make more money doing other things, but the fun and camaraderie of being on this team make up for it."
Karem and Frontier took up the challenge to build a revolutionary UAV for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 1998. Their goal was to build an unmanned helicopter able to fly autonomously or remotely with endurance of 24 hours or more. The company even patented a unique main rotor that allows it to rotate slower, thus increasing fuel economy and endurance. To prove the A160 was viable, Frontier developed the Maverick UAV, based on a small, commercially available helicopter as a test bed.
A GAME CHANGER
As program manager Glusman puts it, the A160 has the ability to be a "game changer" in the UAV field. Glusman previously worked on the Unmanned Combat Armed Rotorcraft and the V-22 and Comanche programs. Now he's excited about what the A160 could offer to military and even civilian customers once the prototypes prove the concept.
"It's got capabilities beyond anything in service," he said. "It can do anything from loitering above the battlefield to taking on high-risk missions" and keeping people out of harm's way.
The A160 is 35 feet long (10.6 meters) with a 36-foot (11-meter) rotor diameter and will fly at an estimated top speed of 140 knots at ceilings of up to 30,000 feet (9,100 meters). It will support reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition, communication relay and precision resupply operations.
Also, the A160'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.
Glusman and the A160 crew began the first Boeing test flights near Victorville, Calif., in September while another part of the team builds a fourth aircraft for testing. If successful, the A160 could transition to Boeing Integrated Defense Systems and into production within five years. Current tests center on testing the A160's hovering and forward flight abilities.
"Each successful test takes us closer to providing an innovative solution unprecedented in the history of helicopter design," Glusman said of the September flights. "We're thrilled to be flying and continue envelope-expansion activities."
All of the A160 production is carried out in the Irvine plant. Among the resources available are a composites shop, software lab and production equipment to build aircraft. What makes the facility unique, Hyde said, is that engineers are can walk right into the shop and see how practical their designs are.
"What we have is a microcosm of Boeing and Phantom Works," she said. "It's all under one roof and it's fascinating, because you can actually see the results of your work immediately."
While the A160 team marches forward, Hyde focuses on transition of the company to Boeing and to future projects. She envisions the group being the leading edge of Phantom Works in designing products and then rapidly developing a prototype for testing. That fulfills one of the Phantom Works mandates-to reduce cycle time and cost.
The team's ideas include developing long-endurance UAVs to fly and stay inside the eyes of hurricanes and transmit information on the storm. Other ideas key in on the Hummingbird's endurance and its potential as a surveillance platform or communications relay.
"We really can do it all here and have incredible resources," Hyde said. "The question I ask myself and the team is, 'what's the next big idea?'"
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