A160 Hummingbird: Boeing’s Variable-Rotor VTUAV

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A160T carries1,000 pounds(click to view full) Recent years have seen a variety of unmanned helicopter options introduced into the market. Boeing’s entry lays a breathtaking challenge before the field: what could the military do with a helicopter-like, autonomously-flown UAV with a range of 2,500 nautical miles and endurance of 16-24 hours, carrying a payload of 1,000-2,500 pounds, and doing it all more quietly than conventional helicopters? For that matter, imagine what disaster relief officials could do with something that had all the positive search characteristics of a helicopter, but much longer endurance. Enter the A160 Hummingbird Warrior (YMQ-18), which was snapped up in one of Boeing’s corporate acquisition deals. It uses a very unconventional rotor technology, and Boeing’s Phantom Works division continues to develop it as a revolutionary technology demonstrator and future UAV platform. With the Navy’s VTUAV locked up by the Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout, Boeing’s sales options may seem thin. Their platform’s capabilities may interest US Special Operations Command and the Department of Homeland Security, and exceptional performance gains will always create market opportunities in the civil and military space. At least, Boeing hopes so. The A160T Hummingbird A160 flight(click to view full) The A160 flew for […]
A160T 1k Test Payload

A160T carries
1,000 pounds
(click to view full)

Recent years have seen a variety of unmanned helicopter options introduced into the market. Boeing’s entry lays a breathtaking challenge before the field: what could the military do with a helicopter-like, autonomously-flown UAV with a range of 2,500 nautical miles and endurance of 16-24 hours, carrying a payload of 1,000-2,500 pounds, and doing it all more quietly than conventional helicopters? For that matter, imagine what disaster relief officials could do with something that had all the positive search characteristics of a helicopter, but much longer endurance.

Enter the A160 Hummingbird Warrior (YMQ-18), which was snapped up in one of Boeing’s corporate acquisition deals. It uses a very unconventional rotor technology, and Boeing’s Phantom Works division continues to develop it as a revolutionary technology demonstrator and future UAV platform. With the Navy’s VTUAV locked up by the Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout, Boeing’s sales options may seem thin. Their platform’s capabilities may interest US Special Operations Command and the Department of Homeland Security, and exceptional performance gains will always create market opportunities in the civil and military space. At least, Boeing hopes so.

The A160T Hummingbird

UAV A-160 Low Test Flight

A160 flight
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The A160 flew for the first time in January 2002 at a former U.S. Air Force base at Victorville, CA, where flight-testing of the Hummingbird continues. Boeing acquired the A160 when it acquired Abe Karem’s Frontier Systems, and licensed exclusive rights to use its key technology in unmanned aerial vehicles. Development is currently underway within Boeing at the Phantom Works advanced concepts group.

The autonomously-flown A160 is 35 feet long with a 36-foot rotor diameter, but it only weighs about 2,500 pounds. Initial target performance included a range of 2,500 nautical miles/ 4,620 km, endurance of 16-24 hours, and 1,000 pounds of payload. It will fly at an estimated top speed of 165 knots/ 305 kmh at ceilings up to 30,000 feet, which is about 10,000 feet higher than most helicopters can fly today. As of August 2009, Boeing claims a 2,500 pound payload capacity for the A160T, whose more Pratt & Whitney Canada PW207D turboshaft replaced the Subaru 4-cylinder and 6-cylinder engines on earlier models.

The A160T/ MQ-18 features a unique hingeless, rigid, optimum-speed rotor technology concept (OSRT). It significantly improves overall performance efficiency by adjusting the rotor’s speed at different altitudes, gross weights and cruise speeds. Boeing program manager Ernie Wattam offered a very accessible explanation to Flight International:

“If you go down the highway and you keep your car in second gear, you get a certain speed and a certain range with your gas mileage… But if you simply shift to fourth gear, you can double your speed and double your range. That’s exactly what the OSR technology does for A160. And that’s what makes it unique.”

This is quite a departure from conventional rotor systems, which tend to have a fixed rotor RPM regardless of altitude. Standard metal rivet construction can have problems at certain “resonant frequencies” of RPM, but the A160T is made up of composites, which don’t seem to have this problem. These manufacturing advances also help the rotor itself. As part of the OSR concept, the rotor blades are light and stiff, and the tips are more flexible than the root thanks to tailored carbon fiber construction. The overall design has the same maximum lift as a conventional helicopter rotor, but in a larger diameter, lower disc-loading design.

Why might that kind if rotor design matter? Well, the rotor can apparently be slowed 60%, and still fly. There are even reports that the A160T’s OSRT rotor can operate between 150-350 rpm, with tip speeds as low as Mach 0.25, instead of regular heliblade tip speeds near Mach 1. Since noise is partly a function of tip speed, a slow-turning A160T would have another big advantage over normal helicopters and VTUAVs: it would be much quieter. There have been many instances in the current war where helicopter noise has alerted enemies prematurely, and the A160’s combination of high altitude ceiling and quiet operation could make it a very potent combination.

DARPA Inside

The Hummingbird Warrior is being developed as a component of the DARPA/Army Future Combat Systems (FCS) Program, and is being evaluated for surveillance and targeting, communications and data relay, lethal and non-lethal weapons delivery, assured crew recovery, resupply of forces in the field, and special operations missions in support of Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and other Agency needs. Future missions currently contemplated for the A160 include reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition, communications relay, and precision re-supply. Detailed design, fabrication and testing of this vehicle is being conducted to establish the A-160’s performance, reliability, and maintainability.

The DARPA program is also conducting development tests of heavy fuel engine technology, coordinating with other DARPA programs developing highly efficient heavy fuel engine technologies. They hope to kick current range and endurance projections up a notch, while improving both operational reliability and JP-8 fuel logistics compatibility with Army units.

Contracts & Key Events

FY 2012


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Unless otherwise noted, all contracts are issued to Boeing in Huntington Beach, CA.

June 25/12: Army ATUAS loss explained. FBO.gov solicitation W911W611D0008: “A–Autonomous Technologies for Unmanned Air Systems (ATUAS)” releases the June 9/11 justification for a sole-source award to Lockheed Martin/ Kaman’s K-MAX (vid. July 16/11 entry), as the only option with the maturity required. The A-160T’s crash history is cited as its disqualification, adding the note that “a third aircraft being built for the USMC unmanned cargo effort suffered an electrical fire requiring a major rebuild.”

The justification adds that 2 “optionally manned” helicopter platforms were also ruled out. One platform was no longer available, and the other is almost certainly the Bell 407 Fire-X, which is now the MQ-8C and is too busy developing itself for US Navy use.

April 17/12: 3 strikes and out? During an ARGUS calibration test flight, the carrying A160T loses engine power and autorotates to the ground, about 3 miles from the Victorville runway. An Army investigation found a failed transmission mount caused by excessive vibration, and terms the damage to the expensive ARGUS payload “excessive.” It’s the 3rd major crash for the platform, and another damaged a new FORESTER radar.

The US Army responds by issuing a stop-work order on the A160T QRC contract. The platform’s endurance offers substantial benefits in naval and coast guard roles, but unless the A160T can find a new customer, and shake its reputation as a risky test program, it may face a bleak future. Aviation Week | Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus.

Crash, again

Dec 22/11: Army QRC to Afghanistan. The U.S. Army announces that they will deploy 3 A160Ts to Afghanistan as a Quick Reaction Capability, beginning in May or June of 2012. The A160s will be equipped with the ARGUS wide-area surveillance sensor suite for up to one full year, “as a way to harness lessons learned and funnel them into a program of record.” Army VTOL UAS program developers and engineers are now finishing up some wiring work on the A160s, and performing ground tests with the ARGUS sensor suite. It’s estimated that ARGUS will produce up to 6 trillion bytes of information per day.

The formal VTOL Program of Record is expected to involve a full and open competition among many vendors. US Army | WIRED Danger Room.

FY 2011

A160T cargo

A160T cargo test
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Aug 16/11: Navy Loss. In the wake of a joint urgent operational need statement from Special Operations Command and the US Navy for a longer-endurance VTUAV, the Office of the Secretary of Defense validates the requirement. The bad news for Boeing is that the Navy’s Fire Scout program office has decided to recommend the NGC/Bell 407 Fire-X design over the Lockheed/Kaman K-MAX, or Boeing’s A160 Hummingbird. The Navy hasn’t formally accepted their recommendation, but refusal would be unusual… and the Fire-X subsequently wins a $200+ million development and initial fielding contract.

The requirement is to develop the larger MQ-8C within 24 months, for deployment in 2014, with plans to acquire 28 air vehicles over 3 years. USN Fire Scout program manager Capt. Patrick Smith reportedly said at AUVSI 2011 that “Our recommendation is to go with the 407 airframe, based on the time frame limitations,” though the A160 and K-MAX have both been flying for far longer than Fire-X. Aviation Week.

July 16/11: Army Loss. The US Army Contracting Command in Fort Eustis, VA, awarded Lockheed Martin a $47 million contract to develop, demonstrate and deliver its K-MAX in support of in-theater unmanned cargo resupply missions (W911W6-11-D-0008).

July 1/11: Cleared to fly. Rotor & Wing reports that A160T flying clearance has been granted. Since 10 months have elapsed since the Belize crash, the first flights are used to re-certify pilots and train new ones.

April 20/11: According to AviationWeek, A160Ts should be allowed to fly again soon, after being grounded for months in the wake of a crash in September last year. Boeing tested changes to the tail rotor, to be retrofitted into existing units.

Besides the 2 Block II production A160Ts delivered to the USMC, a 3rd unit has been kept as a spare.

March 2/11: Upgrade for 2. Boeing subsidiary Frontier Systems in Irvine, CA receives a $14 million cost-plus-fixed-fee contract to upgrade 2 “YMQ-18A unmanned helicopters to modified Block II configuration.” Work will be performed in Irvine, CA, with an estimated completion date of Dec 31/11. One bid was solicited with one bid received by U.S. Army Contracting Command in Redstone Arsenal, AL (W58RGZ-11-C-0075)

The 2 UAVs will be taken from existing A160s. A total of 10 uprated A160Ts were produced for the US Army’s AATD (1, crashed and lost), DARPA (1), and US SOCOM (8, 1 crashed). Boeing will use UAV #20 as a test aircraft, and that UAV will begin production of the A160T Block II model on the line. The USMC’s unmanned cargo program will get A021 and A022. Earlier-model A160 UAVs that used the old Subaru engine currently sit in storage; a total of 9 were produced.

Jan 19/11: Army plans. Flight International reports on the US Army’s VTOL UAV plans, which have changed since the MQ-8B Fire Scout’s cancellation. Col. Robert Sova will be the key person involved, and expects to have a capability development document within the first half of 2011. Col. Randolph Rotte, chief of the aviation division, US Army G-8 Force Development, sees the follow-on as more of a “big Army” project, rather than the Fire Scout’s specific mission set. If history is any guide, that means a larger machine, which very broad capabilities, and more expensive. Meanwhile, US Army PEO-Aviation’s deputy program manager UAS Tim Owings, is quoted saying that:

“We intend to deploy the single A160 to Afghanistan late this year, with two additional vehicles now under final integration deployed sometime early fiscal 2012 as a complement – one rounded quick-reaction capability.”

Any larger order will be pursued through a competitive program. The Army will also want cargo carrying capability, and will be watching the USMC’s experience in Afghanistan closely.

Dec 7/10: ARGUS Demo. Boeing subsidiary Frontier Systems, Inc. in Irvine, CA receives a $12.8 million (NTE) cost plus fixed-fee contract modification (HR0011-07-C-0100), to fund operational demonstrations of the ARGUS-IS surveillance system on the A160T. Specifically, Boeing will undertake planning, payload integration, and air vehicle improvements in support of an A160T integrated with a modified ARGUS-IS pod, carrying both the ARGUS-IS ultra-wide area surveillance system and SIGINT(SIGnals INTelligence/interception) payloads. See also March 13/08 entry re: ARGUS-IS.

Work will be performed in Irvine, CA (100%), and is expected to be complete by May 31/11. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) manages this contract.

Dec 3/10: Cargo UAS. US Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, MD issues a pair of contracts for unmanned cargo helicopters. This contract was competitively procured via an electronic RFP, but instead of choosing a winner between the 2 proposals submitted, NAVAIR provides contracts to both competitors, as part of an explicit strategy to ensure that cargo UAS are available for deployment in Afghanistan in Sept/Oct 2011. Both systems face a demanding set of quick-reaction assessment (QRA) tests in summer 2011, before the Navy picks a winner and exercises the appropriate contract option for an initial 6-month deployment to support the US Marine Corps.

Team Lockheed Martin Corp. in Owego, NY receives a $45.8 million firm-fixed-price contract for 2 of its K-MAX unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), 3 ground stations, any required modifications, and pre-deployment readiness activities including QRA. All contract funds will expire at the end of the current fiscal year, on Sept 30/10. Work will be performed in Owego, NY (90%), and Bloomfield, CT (10%), and is expected to be complete in August 2011 (N00019-11-C-0013).

Boeing subsidiary Frontier Systems, Inc. receives a $29.9 million firm-fixed-price contract for 2 of its A160T Hummingbird unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), any required modifications, 3 ground stations, and pre-deployment readiness activities including QRA. All contract funds will expire at the end of the current fiscal year, on Sept 30/10. Work will be performed in Irvine, CA (50%), and Mesa, AZ (50%), and is expected to be complete in August 2011 (N00019-11-C-0014). See also US NAVAIR | Boeing | Aviation Week.

Cargo UAS R&D

Oct 11/10: Boeing announces that it will submit its A160T for US NAVAIR’s cargo UAS service RFP. The structure of the contract would have contractor employees operate and maintain the UAVs, but use the military would own them, and would use its command structure for mission orders. Boeing already has its ScanEagle UAVs operating as a contracted service for the Navy and Marines; likely competitors include the Lockheed/Kaman K-MAX, with Northrop Grumman’s Bell 407-derived Fire-X as an outside possibility. Boeing | NAVAIR solicitation #N00019-10-R-0020.

FY 2009 – 2010


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Sept 4/10: Crash. A US SOCOM YMQ-18A crashes on the flightline of the Central Farm general aviation airfield in Belize as it returns from a mission, halting a planned 45 days of testing 1 week early. The post-crash condition of the UAV, or of the FORESTER radar sensor it was carrying, is not clear. Subsequent reports indicate that the crash led to a tail rotor re-design.

SOCOM reportedly managed to complete about 90% of the testing objectives, using 2 UAVs to make 28 flights in 27 days, for a combined 94 flight hours. The rest of the testing will be done in the USA, as SOCOM considers whether to follow through and buy 20 MQ-18s between FY 2012-2017. Flight International.


July 28/10: Crash. Flight International reports that a US Army Aviation Applied Technology Directorate-owned Boeing A160T Hummingbird (A007) went into auto-rotation, then rolled onto its side after hitting the ground about 2.4 km away from the planned landing point. The UAV is a complete loss.

As of late August 2010, the cause remains unknown, but subsequent reports suggest a flight control sensor malfunction.


July 7/10: A Flight International report from the Farnborough air show offers some updates regarding the A160:

“With no orders on the books, Boeing made the decision in late 2009 to put the helicopter into production [anyway] in Mesa, Arizona on the same campus where the Boeing AH-64 Apache is built… White-tail [i.e. ready to have someone’s logo painted on] A160s are expected to be available in early 2011. [Boeing program leader Ernie] Wattam says the team has responded to several requests for information, including one from the US Navy for persistent shipboard operations and a resupply request from the US Marine Corps. “We’re expecting a [request for proposals] anytime now to actually take the A160 and deploy to Afghanistan in a cargo resupply capacity,” Wattam says… Boeing is working with the military to integrate the A160’s proprietary ground control system into the Universal Ground Control Station (UGCS)… which itself is still in development. A vehicle-specific module for UGCS the A160 is expected to be complete by the end of the year… Hummingbird team is headed south rather than Farnborough, Wattam says, to spend 45 days demonstrating DARPA’s Forester radar system under a contract with US Special Operations Command.”

April 30/10: Navy RFI. The US Navy’s OPNAV Assessment Division (N81), with technical support from NAVAIR, NAVSEA and SPAWAR, issues a solicitation that seem to open the door for the A160T to deploy on Navy warships. This could introduce potent competition to an arena once owned by the MQ-8B Fire Scout.

The FBO solicitation “Persistent Ship Based UAS RFI” calls for a UAV that can operate from standard Navy ships by 2016-2020, providing mission radius from 300-1,000 nautical miles, on-station endurance of at least 8 hours for a single UAV and up to 72 hours for multiple UAVs, and an operating ceiling of 15,000 – 25,000 feet. Its payload capacity of 600-1,000 pounds must support basic day/night surveillance, including still & full motion video with target quality resolution of small vehicles and personnel, laser designation and range finding (LD/RF), communications interception, and wide area radar. They’d like it to be able to carry weapons, Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) for ground surveillance, or Electronics Intelligence (ELINT) and Measurement and Signature Intelligence (MASINT) packages.

The solicitation is a open RFI, but those characteristics are well beyond the MQ-8B’s maximums, and in fact conform to no known vertical-takeoff UAV. With the possible exception of an improved Bell Textron Eagle-Eye VTUAV… or existing specs for Boeing’s A160T.

April 29/10: Boeing has started self-funded production of the first 5 A106T Hummingbirds being built at its Mesa, AZ site near Falcon Field. Between 30 – 40 employees at the facility are working on this project, and Mesa site production of the 2nd aircraft should begin at the beginning of May 2010. with the 1st Mesa-built A160T scheduled to be complete by the end of 2010. Phoenix East Valley Tribune.

April 15/10: Defense News quotes US Army UAS project manager Col. Gregory Gonzalez, who says that that they will sign an agreement with U.S. Special Operations Command to borrow one of its A160 Hummingbird UAVs for deployment to Afghanistan. The Army plans to install Northrop Grumman’s Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar (VADER), to track moving vehicles and people on the ground. That capability could be used for missions ranging from convoy overwatch, to surveillance against planting land mines, to more general battlefield surveillance. The report adds that the Army is also considering buying a few more A160Ts.

March 23/10: Army cancels MQ-8B. Northrop Grumman responds to DID’s queries on the subject, and confirms that the Army’s MQ-8B Fire Scout Class IV UAV program has been canceled:

“Yes, the Army did cancel the Class IV MQ-8B Fire Scout UAS, their only Vertical Unmanned Aerial System (VUAS) program of record in January, 2010. Obviously, we’re disappointed… In the meantime, we had a very successful demonstration of Fire Scout at the Army’s Expeditionary Warrior Experiment, Ft Benning, Ga. from mid Jan to mid Feb (just days after the Army cancelled the program officially). It was a great opportunity to show soldiers all the things that Fire Scout can do. In addition to its RSTA missions (which the opposition forces at AEWE hated because it revealed their every move), we also demonstrated cargo resupply for small units, comms relay (provided assured comms to all participants in AEWE) and deployment of other unmanned ground systems and unattended ground sensors… We believe that over the long term that the Army wants and needs a vertical unmanned aerial system to support its mission requirements. We continue to have discussions with them…”

The Army probably does need a VTUAV; meanwhile, MQ-8B development will continue for the US Navy. The Fire Scout may end up taking a short break before receiving the Army’s order again, or this change could open the door to new competitors. Boeing’s A160T will have a new chance to compete if the Army wants a VTUAV, and so might Lockheed Martin and Kaman’s K-MAX.

March 15/10: Boeing begins to build 21 A160T prototypes in Mesa, AZ, using the same production line it uses for AH-64 Apache builds and refurbishment [Source]. Boeing hasn’t secured an order yet, which makes this an unusual move. It’s not unheard of in the UAV space, however, where General Atomics is the most famous practitioner of the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy.

A160T production begins

March 9-11/10: USMC. Boeing’s A160T performs trials in response to a solicitation from the US Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory. The USMC wanted an unmanned helicopter that can deliver at least 2,500 pounds of cargo from one simulated forward-operating base, to another 75 nautical miles away, in 6 hours.

The A160T completed 7 test flights at Dugway Proving Ground, UT during the demonstration. highlights included a 2-minute hover at 12,000 feet with a 1,250-pound sling load, a nighttime delivery to a simulated forward operating base, and a set of 2 round trips of 150-nautical-miles carrying 1,250-pound sling loads, with the A160T operating autonomously on a pre-programmed mission. Boeing release.

See Aug 10/09 entry. Its competition is a collaboration between Lockheed Martin and Kaman Helicopters, using an unmanned version of the K-MAX, which finished its trials in February 2010..

Dec 16/09: FORESTER Syracuse Research Corp. in North Syracuse, NY received a $5.3 million cost-plus-fixed-fee contract for the Foliage Penetration Reconnaissance, Surveillance, Tracking and Engagement Radar System (FORESTER). Work is to be performed in Syracuse, NY, with an estimated completion date of Dec 17/12. One bid was solicited with one bid received by the U.S. Army Research Development and Engineering Commands, Contracting Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD (W91CRB-10-C-0026).

See also March 13/08 & May 10/04 entries; FORESTER was originally developed for the A160, and intends to offer a ground-looking radar than can track moving targets through trees and other partial ground cover. While the A160’s characteristics are well suited to those scenarios, the radar could also be integrated and deployed on other platforms.

Dec 1/09: USCG. Aviation Week reports that the US Coast Guard is still considering its options:

“As part of its ongoing analysis, the service has participated in numerous exercises with other platforms [beyond the MQ-8B]… including Boeing’s A160 Hummingbird, an AeroVironment vehicle and ScanEagle tested on board a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ship.”


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Aug 17/09: USMC. Inside the Navy reports that urgent operational needs may drive the US Navy to hold demonstrations of the Marines’ Immediate Cargo Unmanned Aerial System in December 2009, instead of February 2010.

Aug 10/09: Boeing receives a $500,000 contract from the U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory to demonstrate the company’s A160T (YMQ-18A) Hummingbird for the Marines’ Immediate Cargo Unmanned Aerial System Demonstration Program. The Marines are studying the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in lieu of trucks and personnel to deliver supplies. The USMC’s objective is to move 20,000 pounds of cargo in a 24 hour period, over a round trip distance of 150 nautical miles.

This is a small amount, but it’s a potentially significant award. Supplying small forward operating bases using trucks requires escorting forces, and exposes their convoys to the threat of mines. The standard solution is helicopter drop-off, but every force in theater is short of helicopters, and the heavy helicopters that can carry meaningful loads in Afghanistan’s high altitudes and heat are very expensive to buy. The A160T can be rather less expensive to buy, works at high altitudes, and its rotor technology and lower vehicle weight make it cheaper to operate – if it can maintain the same crash rate as manned helicopters. Success in this area could open up a multi-service, or even an international, market niche.

In flights that will take place by February 2010, Boeing will demonstrate that the A160T can deliver at least 2,500 pounds of cargo from one simulated forward-operating base to another in fewer than 6 hours per day, for 3 consecutive days.

The A160T will be competing for this role, against products that include the Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-MAX optionally-manned intermeshed rotor UAV. The larger 5,100 pound K-MAX has a lifting capacity of 6,000 pounds, but can be dangerous to ground personnel if approached from the sides. Boeing release | Lockheed Martin release | Aviation Week.

Cargo UAS R&D

May 6/09: US SOCOM. Flight International reports that US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has confirmed plans to acquire 20 A160Ts as strike and surveillance aircraft from FY 2012 – FY 2017. US SOCOM plans to submit its acquisition strategy for approval to the Pentagon’s Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) by the end of the end of 2009.

The article also references US SOSOCM’s A160 program manager, Maj. Scott Beall. He reportedly said that SOCOM plans to deploy 3 of the 8 prototypes to an undisclosed location in 2010, equipped with DARPA’s FORESTER radar that can see through vegetation. Beall added that the A160T will also be a candidate for a US Marine Corps requirement to deploy an “immediate cargo UAS” to Iraq or Afghanistan by February 2010.

February 2009: SOCOM. National Defense Magazine summarizes the current state of the program with US Special Operations Command. US SOCOM has received 7 Hummingbird prototypes under a joint SOCOM-DARPA contract for a “Special Operations long endurance demonstration,” and the service has awarded about $90 million in A160 related contracts since 2002.

The unit cost for a Hummingbird prototype is reportedly around $3.6 million, but there are no immediate plans to buy more. The program’s fate will reportedly depend on whether its capabilities are considered to be so new and important that a budget is found for it.

Dec 10/08: SOCOM. Gannett’s Army Times quotes SOCOM’s Hummingbird program manager Maj. Scott Beal, and reports that U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is planning to arm the VTUAVs.

SOCOM is reportedly testing 7 prototypes purchased in 2005, as part of a technology demonstration phase that will continue until March 2009. August 2008 saw tests of the UAV’s compatibility with the One System Remote Video Terminal, Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, and Enhanced Position Location Reporting System. The armed tests will require redundant flight controls, along with strengthened metal skin to accommodate the Hellfire missile launchers.

FY 2006 – 2008

UAV A-160 Camera Install

A160 camera install
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May 14-15/08: Boeing successfully flies its A160T Hummingbird at altitudes up to 18,000 feet for 18.7 hours, while carrying a 300-pound internal payload up to altitudes of 15,000 feet. This is an unofficial world endurance record for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) weighing between 1,102 – 5,511 pounds/ 500 – 2,500 kg, and Boeing is applying to the NAA to make it official. The UAV landed with better than 90 minutes of fuel in reserve. Boeing release.

May 9/08: The A106T demonstrates Hover Out of Ground Effect for 2.9 hours, reaching beyond to the DARPA goal of 15,000 feet to 20,000 feet, including 7 minutes of hover time. Source.

Record flight

March 30/08: Aviation Week reports that Boeing is set to resume flights with the A160T. The planned flights would set new records, and include a hover out of ground effect at 15,000 feet, and an 18-20 hour flight with a 300 pound payload. These are the final milestones of the Phase 1 demonstration which began in August 2003.

Once the Phase 1 milestone flights are completed in civil airspace around Victorville, CA, the next steps will involve tests of advanced sensors for DARPA. These are expected to begin with the agency’s Forester (Foliage Penetration Reconnaissance, Surveillance, Tracking and Engagement Radar) foliage penetration radar with a 12-30 mile range, and later move on to the Argus-IS (autonomous real-time ground ubiquitous surveillance imaging system) wide-area video sensor, and the Adaptive Conformal ESA Radar (AACER). Other planned tests include a 1,000 pound cargo pod for SOCOM, plus Hellfire missile firings.

March 13/08: ARGUS-IS. DARPA Director Dr. Tony Tether discusses a pair of programs related to the A160 program, during congressional testimony [PDF] before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities:

“For the urban environment, DARPA’s Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance – Imaging System (ARGUS-IS) program is developing a new wide field-of-view video sensor to significantly improve the number of targets tracked. The sensor will supply over 65 real-time video windows, each providing high-resolution motion video comparable to that currently provided by Predator. Each window will also be independently steerable, allowing operators to keep critical areas of interest under constant surveillance. ARGUS-IS is designed to operate on the A160, a revolutionary high-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned helicopter.

And for operations in forested areas, last year we successfully demonstrated a foliage-penetrating radar that detects vehicles and dismounted adversaries under heavy forest canopy. The radar, called FOPEN Reconnaissance, Surveillance, Tracking and Engagement Radar (FORESTER), was installed on a Black Hawk helicopter and flew at a standoff range. Operators onboard the aircraft could detect people walking under foliage in and around concealed encampments. This year we also plan to install and demonstrate this radar on the A160.”

December 2007: Crash. A flight control system failure leads to the loss of an A160 prototype. Boeing’s accident investigation board determined the accident occurred when sensor data in the flight computer stopped being updated in mid-flight. Source.


A160T 12-hour test

A160T 12-hour test
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Oct 12/07: The A160T successfully completes a 12-hour test flight, taking off at 6:27 a.m. Pacific near Victorville, CA with a 500-pound payload, flying at 5,000 feet, and landing 12.1 hours later at 6:32 p.m. The 500 pound payload simulates a multi-sensor operational mission, and even after 12 hours, the flight had used less than 60% of the aircraft’s maximum fuel. Boeing release.

Oct 3/07: A $1.145 million increment of a $6.3 million cost plus fixed fee contract on Sept. 28, 2007, to deliver an A160T aircraft and modified pod for the Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance-Imaging System (ARGUS-IS) program. Work will be performed in Huntington Beach and is expected to be completed in May 2009. This is a sole source award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, VA (HR0011-07-C-0100).

Sept 28/07: Boeing Completes an 8-hour flight of the A160T Hummingbird, carrying a 1,000 pound payload. During its longest flight to date and the program’s 42nd flight overall, the aircraft reached an altitude of 5,000 feet near Victorville, CA. Jim Martin, Boeing’s A160T program manager added that “…we only used half the maximum fuel so we could have flown many more hours.” Ultimately, Boeing plans to fly the aircraft for 18 consecutive hours with a 300-pound payload.

The aircraft used during the tests is the 2nd of 11 A160Ts that Boeing is building for DARPA. Boeing release.

June 18/07: Boeing announces a successful first flight for the A160T Hummingbird from an airfield near Victorville, CA. During the 12-minute hover flight to verify vehicle and subsystem operation, the A160T met all test objectives and collected extensive flight control, propulsion and subsystem operation data. The test marked the 37th flight overall for the A160 program. Jim Martin, Boeing Advanced Systems A160 program manager:

“Today’s Hover-In-Ground Effect flight is our first step in providing the warfighter the key element of our approach to providing persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance coverage that only an unmanned helicopter of this type can provide.”

Nov 8/06: Boeing resumes test flight operations near Victorville, CA. A team of test engineers from Boeing and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) put the A160 through its paces in a 45-minute test that included both hover and forward flight.

This current series of test flights is being conducted using the 6-cylinder gasoline engine variant. “Engineers will analyze the flight data and determine objectives for subsequent test flights at the same time that work continues in parallel toward the first flight of the turbine-powered A160T next spring.” Boeing release.

FY 2003 – 2005

UAV A-160 Hummingbird Flight

4-cylinder A160
(click to view full)

Dec 2/05: Boeing announces the A160 Hummingbird’s first flight with a 6-cylinder Subaru engine, instead of the 4-cylinder Subaru engines used by previous aircraft. The objectives of the recent flight test were to open the A160’s flight envelope for the latest vehicle configuration, and the new A160 successfully flew for about 30 minutes in the vicinity of the Victorville, CA air field, bringing the total number of A160 test flights to 32 and the total number of flight hours to 58.

Aug 10/05: Boeing subsidiary Frontier Systems Inc. in Irvine, CA received a $49.95 million ceiling-priced indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity contract for an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) of the A-160 Hummingbird Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), to assess the military utility and affordability of a long-range VTOL UAV employing a wide variety of adaptable payloads. Work will be performed in Irvine, CA and is expected to be complete in August 2008. This contract was competitively procured under a Broad Agency Announcement, and the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division in Patuxent River, MD issued the contract (N00421-05-D-0046).

This program will also evaluate application of the optimum speed rotor concept to other systems including heavy lift and tilt rotor capabilities. In September 2005, Frontier Systems founder Abe Karem’s new company Frontier Aircraft won a DARPA Joint Heavy Lift contract to evaluate OSR on a tilt-rotor aircraft. Boeing acquired the rights to Karem’s optimum-speed rotor technology used for unmanned aircraft like the A-160 Hummingbird, but Karem is free to apply the concept to manned vehicles.

ACTD contract

AIR UAV A-160 Outside Hangar

(click to view full)

May 10/04: FORESTER. Syracuse Research Corp. in North Syracuse, NY won a $10.3 million increment as part of a $13.3 million cost-plus-incentive-fee contract for the ultra high frequency, foliage penetrating, real-time moving target indicator/synthetic aperture radar for use in the A160 Hummingbird helicopter. Work will be performed in North Syracuse, NY, and is expected to be complete by Nov 2/05. There were 2 bids solicited on Dec 5/03, and 2 bids were received by the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command in Fort Monmouth, NJ (W15P7T-04-C-K216).

May 4/04: Boeing buys Frontier Systems, Inc., developer of the A-160 Hummingbird and Maverick UAVs. At this point, the privately held Frontier Systems has about 70 employees and was formed in 1991. Frontier Systems EVP/CFO Gale Kerem:

“For years we’ve been looking for the right company to take Frontier’s programs into production… Boeing provides the perfect complement of people and technology for further developing and producing the Hummingbird and making it even more versatile and effective for a wide variety of domestic and international markets.”


Sept 12/03: DARPA deal. Small business qualifier Frontier Systems Inc. in Irvine, CA receives a $2.5 million increment of a $75 million other transaction for prototypes agreement to design, develop and test 4 A160 unmanned aerial vehicles. Work will be performed in Victorville, CA and will be complete in September 2007. This is a sole-source award by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (MDA972-03-9-0004).

DARPA eventually orders 11.

DARPA contract

Additional Readings & Sources

* Boeing – A160T Hummingbird

* DARPA – A160

* Technovelgy – Boeing A160 Has Whisper Mode

* Aviation Week – Boeing Rotary UAV Aims To Set Records. From March 2008, describes the OSTR concept and mechanism in more detail.

* Flight International (July 7/10) – FARNBOROUGH: Cutaway & technical description: Defying convention – Boeing A160 Hummingbird

* DID – USMC Looks for an Unmanned Cargo Helicopter.

* National Defense Magazine (February 2009) – U.S. Special Operations Command Weighs Deployment of Armed Drone

* DID Spotlight – Joint Heavy Lift Program: Breakthrough, Borg, or Backwater? The article offers an overview of a number of revolutionary rotorcraft technologies, which were the subject of Joint Heavy Lift program awards. OSTR technology is one of them.

* Boeing Frontiers (Dec 04/ Jan 05) – Boeing’s Concept Exploration pioneers new UAV development with the Hummingbird and the Maverick

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