Air Transportation: Marines Demand A Robotic Courier


March 21, 2009: The U.S. Marine Corps is shopping for a UAV to deliver supplies, at least half a ton per trip, in order to  get essential items (ammo, water, food) to combat troops in remote locations. The marines want the UAV in action by this Summer, so they are looking for something that already exists. The most likely candidate is a helicopter UAV, so it can land wherever it's needed.

For the last nine years, the U.S. Department of Defense has been developing a helicopter UAV designed to stay in the air for over twelve hours at a time. One recent test had the A160T Hummingbird staying in the air for 18.7 hours, at altitudes up to 15,000 feet, while carrying a 300 pound load (to simulate a typical sensor package). The first flight test of the Hummingbird Unmanned Aerial Vehicle took place seven years ago.

 The A160T is a small helicopter, able to fly under remote control or under its own pre-programmed control. The two ton vehicle has a top speed of 255 kilometers an hour, and was originally designed to operate for up to 40 hours carrying a payload of 300 pounds. Maximum altitude was to be about 30,000 feet, and its advanced flight controls were to be capable of keeping it airborne in weather that would ground manned helicopters.

A production decision on the A160 is expected this year, and a marine contract may make it happen. If the Hummingbird does get into production, it can carry a half ton of cargo for several hours, The U.S. Navy has also been interested in the A160, because it can operate off any ship with a helipad.

The A160 has some competition in the RQ-8B Fire Scout, which can stay in the air for up to eight hours at a time (five hour missions are more common), has a top speed of 230 kilometers an hour, and can operate over 200 kilometers from its controller (on land, or a ship.) The RQ-8A is being developed for use on smaller navy ships, as well as with army combat units.

The RQ-8 is based on a two seat civilian helicopter (the Schweizer Model 333), and has a maximum takeoff weight of 1.5 tons. With its rotors folded (for storage on ships), the RQ-8 is 23 feet long and 9.4 feet high. Max payload is 600 pounds, meaning it does  not meet the marine payload requirement. The flight control software enables the RQ-8 to land and take off automatically. Each RQ-8 UAV costs about $8 million (including a share of the ground control equipment and some spares.) The flight control software enables the RQ-8 to land and take off automatically. The A160T is expected to cost at least 20 percent more.


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