Boeing’s Mesa rotorcraft unit is experimenting with turning an aging Vietnam War-era helicopter into an unmanned aerial vehicle that can be controlled from the modern Apache Longbow to attack terrorist targets.
Boeing engineers in February for the first time controlled the technology demonstrator while it was in the air from an Apache that was stationed on the ground. During the test at the Apache assembly works north of Falcon Field, the Apache pilots were able to perform a simulated firing of a Hellfire missile from the unmanned aerial vehicle.
“The latest test is moving the Apache to the next level — controlling a UAV’s sensors and employing its weapons,” said Melanie Luna, manager of the Airborne Manned/Unmanned System Technology Demonstration program.
Boeing engineers have been experimenting for about three years with using the Apache to contro l unmanned aerial vehicles as a way to both extend the combat performance of the Apache and to update and find new uses for older helicopters.
The unmanned aerial vehicle used in the tests is a modified version of the MD-500F, a utility helicopter that dates back to the 1960s. Normally operated with a twoman crew, Boeing engineers have updated it with sensors and other equipment that allow it to be remotely controlled, although a safety pilot has been on board the aircraft for all of the tests so far.
The unmanned version of the MD-500F has been dubbed the Little Bird.
In combat scenarios where it’s too dangerous to send in a manned aircraft, the Little Bird could be flown to a target using remote control to either fire a missile or drop a bomb before returning to its base. Controlling the Little Bird from an airborne Apache would extend the range of operations of the unmanned aerial vehicle beyond what would be possible if the unmanned aerial vehicle were controlled from a ground station, said Dawn Macaraeg, Boeing’s deputy general manager of advanced rotorcraft.
The Little Bird has several advantages over other unmanned aerial vehicles under development by the U.S. military because it is cheaper to modify an existing airframe and it can carry a greater payload, whether it be bigger bombs or bigger surveillance cameras, she said.
But the company has not yet sold the Department of Defense on the idea. Boeing is funding the research and development project from its own pocket rather than under an R and D contract from the Defense Department.
Company officials have been giving demonstrations to the Army, Navy and Air Force, Macaraeg said.
“There are also opportunities for foreign military sales,” she said.
In addition to the latest test, the Little Bird has completed a weapons test at the Yuma Proving Grounds in southwest Arizona, where ground station operators controlling the craft were able to locate and hit a target with a Hellfire missile from several miles away. Also Boeing has conducted tests with the technology at Fort Huachuca in southeast Arizona.