Army Announces Plans to Acquire Unmanned Helicopters
The announcement at the Association of the United States Army aviation conference Jan. 13 comes three years after the service abandoned a similar program, the FireScout, which was formerly part of the canceled Future Combat Systems program.
Gates, during a recent speech outlining Defense Department requirements, mentioned the need for the Army to field a hovering unmanned aircraft.
Tim Owings, deputy program manager at the unnamed aircraft systems project office, said the Army will initially field a Boeing-built A160 Hummingbird unmanned rotary-wing aircraft in Afghanistan this year. The Hummingbird will answer an immediate need for slow moving aerial platforms that can hover and stare at targets. The Army’s intelligence community is driving the push to field the aircraft, he said. There are certain sensors that perform better when not mounted aboard faster moving fixed-wing unmanned systems, he said.
The Hummingbird can fly up to 20 hours with a range of 2,250 nautical miles and carry a 2,500 pound payload.
The Army has not settled on the Hummingbird, or even a rotary-wing aircraft as its long-term solution, he cautioned. There will be a competition where other aircraft will vie with the Hummingbird. They may be ducted-fan aircraft or other types of helicopters. Meanwhile, the data collected from the Hummingbird operations will help the service write requirement documents.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which initially developed the A160, is supplying the first aircraft. Special Operations Command, which has also been interested in using the aircraft as a sensor platform, will provide two additional Hummingbirds next year.
The Army, therefore, will not have to purchase a VTOL until 2012, Owings said.
Col. Robert Sova, Training and Doctrine Command capabilities manager for unmanned aerial systems, said the first set of capabilities documents the service is required to produce to create a program of record should be completed by the first half of this year.
“We plan on doing a quick turn-around,” he told reporters at the conference.
A VTOL aircraft may also be used for cargo resupply missions, Owings said, although that is not what they are being asked to do at the moment. The Marine Corps currently has a program to use unmanned helicopters to resupply forward operating bases in Afghanistan.