Boeing engineers have completed the first unmanned flight of the “Little Bird” aerial vehicle under a program that is modernizing an older model Boeing helicopter by giving it unmanned capabilities.
The 20-minute flight without a pilot on board took place on June 30 at the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in southwest Arizona, the company said Wednesday.
The technology for the aircraft was developed at Boeing’s rotorcraft works in Mesa, where the company has test flown the machine for the past two years, but with a safety pilot on board.
The aircraft is a modified MD 530F single-engine helicopter, the earliest version of which was developed by the Hughes Helicopter Co. in the 1960s before the company merged with McDonnell-Douglas and later with Boeing.
On June 30 the unmanned aircraft lifted off from a helipad, hovered briefly and flew a programmed armed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission around the proving ground, the company said.
After about 20 minutes the aircraft returned to the helipad and landed within six inches of the planned recovery location.
“Expansion of the flight envelope to include true unmanned flight is a major milestone for the program and opens doors to a wide range of applications for this aircraft,” said Dino Cerchie, advanced systems program manager for the Little Bird.
Four hundred and fifty hours of engineering test flights of the demonstrator aircraft in Mesa developed and tested the sensors and systems necessary for the machine to operate as an unmanned aerial vehicle, he said.
So far, however, Boeing has not signed up any customers for the Unmanned Little Bird. Cerchie said the aircraft has potential in combat scenarios, combining low cost with a proven airframe.
Potentially the Little Bird could be controlled from the cockpit of an AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopter, which also is manufactured by Boeing in Mesa.
The capability to control the Little Bird from an Apache Longbow has already been demonstrated in test programs, said Mark Hardesty, Boeing systems test director.