Called the Unmanned Little Bird, Boeing's proofof-concept demonstrator is actually a modified, combat-proven MD530F helicopter. It is outfitted with a custom open-architecture flight-control-system that lets the rotorcraft function as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).
Although a human pilot accompanied the aircraft on its maiden flight for safety sake, he was there only to monitor performance, says Boeing project manager Dino Cerchie. "With a push of a button, the pilot relinquishes control, but he can just as quickly resume command if necessary." This drastically reduces the chance of a crash that could destroy custom electronics and other gear, he says.
The UAV has logged over 150 hr of unmanned flight. No other experimental UAV has flown as much, so quickly, Cerchie says. Last September, less than a year after program go-ahead, the UAV took its first flight and was doing autonomous takeoffs and landings only a month later. In autonomous flight, the aircraft is programmed to fly missions going from takeoff to landing without being controlled remotely.
Militarized variants of the commercial MD 530F already have proven combat records and are the only light assault-helicopter in the Army inventory. They support special operations forces and can be armed with a combination of guns and folding-fin rockets.
Boeing says it can integrate many off-the-shelf components into the openarchitecture flight control system for the UAV. A lot of military approved hardware fits on the rotorcraft as well. This may get the UAV into the field faster, says Cerchie, because ancillary hardware won't need lengthy MIL Spec testing before deployment.
Pilots in an AH-64D Apache Longbow combat helicopter can control the flight of the smaller aircraft. This would let them extricate downed pilots or other military operatives in remote terrain too difficult for the Apache. The Apache could circle above, providing air support. Additionally, the Apaches could get video or data from the UAV, giving them a second set of eyes for better airborne intelligence.
Obviously, surveillance and reconnaissance, downed pilot recovery, and weapons delivery are primary interests to military end users, says Cerchie. But other agencies including the Forest and National Park Service and Coast Guard could use the versatile UAV to help rescue civilians without putting their own personnel in harms-way.