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Boeing's robo-copter flexes its muscle

Unmanned A160T Hummingbird demonstrates ability to conduct autonomous resupply operations, a preview of front-line operations of the not-too-distant future.

Boeing A160T Hummingbird
A Boeing A160T Hummingbird performs a sling-load test flight in Victorville, Calif., in January. Boeing

The pack mule of the 21st century could well be a robot. Don't be surprised to see it in flight.

Boeing on Monday said that its autonomous, unmanned A160T Hummingbird made quick work of a resupply test last week at the U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. During the demonstration, the cargo copter carried out seven test flights.

Two of those flights were round trips spanning 150 nautical miles, with the Hummingbird toting 1,250-pound sling loads in a simulated mission between forward operating bases. The aircraft completed the mission in less than the required 6 hours and, being a robo-copter and all, did so while operating autonomously (though preprogrammed-ly.) Autonomous deliveries by the A160T, Boeing said without offering specifics, were "extremely accurate."

The Hummingbird also showed that it could perform a 2-minute hover at 12,000 feet with the 1,250-pound sling load and a nighttime delivery to a simulated forward operating base.

The Dugway demonstration was done in conjunction with a $500,000 contract from the U.S. Marines Corps. The Marines are looking to technologies like the Hummingbird as a way to resupply frontline troops hunkered down in rugged terrain.

In earlier tests, the A160T has flown as fast as 140 knots and for more than 18 hours without refueling. It measures 35 long and has a rotor diameter of 36 feet. The unmanned aerial vehicle can also be used for surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout
The MQ-8B Fire Scout in flight. Northrop Grumman

Boeing's not alone in working on unmanned rotorcraft. Northrop Grumman, for instance, has been showing off the ability of its MQ-8B Fire Scout UAV to carry gear into combat zones, offering this description of the aircraft's maneuvering during the Army's recent Expeditionary Warrior Experiment (AEWE) at Fort Benning, Ga.:

During the AEWE, Fire Scout flew to a named area of interest, surveyed the area to ensure it was clear, and landed autonomously within its pre-planned landing point. When Fire Scout's on-board skid sensors detected contact with the ground, a command was sent to release the unmanned ground vehicle. Seconds later, Fire Scout ascended and then loitered at a higher altitude to observe and provide a relay for commands between the UGV and its controller.