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Boeing's Hummingbird UAV hums along

Turbine-powered unmanned rotorcraft hovers high and keeps going and going in recent performance tests. Plus: A test shot for the Advanced Tactical Laser.

A160T Hummingbird comes in for a landing
The A160T Hummingbird comes in for a landing May 9 at the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona after a high-altitude hovering demonstration.

A disparate pair of aviation R&D projects at Boeing have hit milestones recently.

The A160T Hummingbird, a helicopter-style unmanned aerial vehicle, last week flew for 18.7 hours without refueling, an accomplishment that Boeing described Wednesday as an "unofficial world endurance record" for UAVs between 500 and 2,500 kilograms (about 1,100 to 5,500 pounds)--a record that's pending certification by a key aeronautical sanctioning body.

But the record books aside, the flight also helps to show the Hummingbird's mettle as a potential aircraft for military use. During the flight, the turbine-powered unmanned rotorcraft carried a 300-pound internal payload--which in eventual real-life operations might be supplies for ground troops or gear for in-flight surveillance--and flew as high as 15,000 feet. When it finished, it still had about 90 minutes worth of fuel in reserve.

In a test flight last September, the Hummingbird carried a heavier load for a shorter period of time (1,000 pounds and eight hours). The A160T variant first flew about a year ago, taking up where an earlier piston-powered version left off.

Another May milestone for the A160T Hummingbird, which is designed to fly autonomously, involved so-called hover-out-of-ground-effect flights at 15,000 and 20,000 feet. The ability to hover at the relatively high altitudes would make the UAV more effective for missions in mountainous areas and help keep it out of range of some ground-based air defense weapons, Boeing said.

Measuring 35 feet long with a 36-foot rotor diameter, the Hummingbird in service is expected to fly at 140 knots for more than 20 hours. Boeing Advanced Systems is building the UAV for DARPA and for the Army and Navy.

Advanced Tactical Laser aircraft
The Advanced Tactical Laser aircraft in flight. Ed Turner, Boeing

Also this week, Boeing said that on May 13, it fired a high-energy chemical laser--in ground tests--aboard a C-130H aircraft, a step toward in-flight tests later this year in which the laser will fire at ground targets from on high. The directed-energy weapon is designed to fire through a rotating belly turret in the aircraft, known as the Advanced Tactical Laser.

And in a me-too missive straight out of the Cold War, the Russian news agency Novosti reported a patriotic response to the ATL test from an unnamed Russian defense industry "expert." Boeing, it would seem, is late to the game.

"We tested a similar system back in 1972. Even then our 'laser cannon' was capable of hitting targets with high precision," the expert is quoted as saying. "We have moved far ahead since then, and the U.S. has to keep pace with our research and development."