The U.S. Army is borrowing a YMQ-18A (A160T Hummingbird) helicopter UAV from SOCOM (Special Operations Command). A year ago, SOCOM doubled its order, to 20, for the YMQ-18A, having ordered the first ten in late 2008. The army will mount a 1.1 ton VADER (Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar) pod on the YMQ-18A, and use it to track vehicles and people on the ground in Afghanistan. VADER was designed for use on the Sky Warrior UAV, but the multiple sensors of VADER lend themselves to staying in one place to keep an eye on suspicious activity. Thus the experiment with the YMQ-18A. VADER was developed by the IED task force, and will patrol roads at night, looking for roadside bombs, or people planting them.
The YMQ-18A began development in 1998 as part of a U.S. Department of Defense effort to create a helicopter UAV that could stay in the air for over twelve hours at a time. The most recent test had a YMQ-18A 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). This set a record for unmanned UAVs weighing between half a ton and 2.5 tons. When the YMQ-18A landed, it still had 90 minutes worth of fuel left. The first flight test of the Hummingbird Unmanned Aerial Vehicle took place seven years ago. Carrying VADER, the YMQ-18A can still stay in the air for over six hours per sortie.
The YMQ-18A is a small helicopter, able to fly under remote control or under its own pre-programmed control. The three 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. Max payload is about what VADER weighs. The army wants to test how well the YMQ-18A operates carrying that kind of weight, especially in the high altitudes (thin air) of Afghanistan. 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.
The YMQ-18A can also be armed, and one has been configured with stubby wings, capable of carrying eight (hundred pounds each) Hellfire missiles. The U.S. Navy is interested in the YMQ-18A, because it can operate off any ship with a helipad. SOCOM wants the YMQ-18A because it can hover, and because it is actually very quiet. The chopper can deliver supplies to Special Forces teams at night, as well as assist with intelligence gathering. Moreover, the YMQ-18A can carry new sensors (like VADER) that can detect people moving through forests or thick bush below. The SOCOM YMQ-18As are headed for Afghanistan, where there are plenty of forests up in the mountains. Like other UAVs, the YMQ-18A carries the usual assortment of day and night video cameras, plus laser rangefinder and laser designator.