Warplanes: Little Bird Goes Pilotless

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November 19, 2015: A South Korean firm has developed an unmanned version of the MD-500 helicopter for patrol work (with or without weapons) in dangerous areas like the DMZ (DeMilitarized Zone) border with North Korea. South Korea has 175 MD-500s but the first of these were delivered in the 1970s and all of them are getting old. So a UAV version could also be seen as a safety measure and a way to get some more life out of these machines. This was not a risky project because the South Koreans had the advantage of an ally (the United States) who did the same thing in 2005 when some MD-500s developed for duty in Iraq were equipped to operate as UAVs. South Korea bought some of this technology for their version.

Back in in 2004 the American manufacturer of the MD-500 developed an unmanned version for the U.S. Army. This UAV helicopter was initially meant to serve as a communications satellite substitute. The UAV version, called the Unmanned Little Bird (ULB), can also carry half a ton of supplies to troops, or operate as a reconnaissance aircraft. The use of ULB for taking in supplies, and/or removing casualties, reduces the risk to pilots. You still need a crew, however, to operate the ULB remotely. The MD-530F model was used for the ULB conversion.

The MD-500 series machines also serve in the military as the OH-6 (a two seat reconnaissance helicopter) and the MH-6 (a SOCOM bird that can carry six commandoes on its skids.) The MD-530F is a 1.5 ton helicopter with a max cruising speed of 245 kilometers hour and a normal range of 600 kilometers. It is one of the more recent models in the very successful MD-500 line. Over 5,000 of these helicopters have been manufactured for military and civilian use. The ULBs cost $5.5 million each, and the army bought a few of them for further testing because after 2007 there was not much need for them in Iraq. The ULB can carry communications gear that operates like a communications satellite, enabling the army to get more satellite commo capability for less money. When operating like this, the ULB can stay in the air for eight hours at a time, at an altitude of 15,000 feet. Eventually the ULB underwent firing tests with Hellfire missiles and other weapons. The ULB had vidcams on board and targeting systems that enabled it to locate targets below for other weapons. Without the satellite communications gear, the ULB can operate as an armed scout helicopter. The ULB can be used for high-risk missions that would be very dangerous, or even suicidal, for a human crew.

 


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