So what if Google designed a Prius that can guide itself along Nevada's barren highways. The US Army has a helicopter that can guide itself through war zones.
The ULB is the latest in a long line of Light Observational helicopters. The US Army ordered more than a thousand of the choppers in 1965 for light-duty personnel transport, escort missions, evacuations, and intelligence gathering missions based on a winning design from Hughes (now MD) Aircraft that beat out entries from both Fairchild-Hiller and Bell. These agile and lightweight, two-seat helicopters measure 32-feet in length and nearly ten-feet tall with a 27-foot diameter rotor.
With a carrying capacity over 2,400 pounds, the Little Bird can easily be reequipped to function in a variety of military tasks. It can shuttle equipment and weapon resupplies to front-line troops, conduct intelligence gathering, act as a communications node, and even be prepped for assault. The AH-6 assault version carries 2.75-inch diameter Hydra-70 rockets, GPS-aided Viper Strike SOPGM (stand-off precision-guided munition) gliders, a GAU-19 mini-gun, and outboard benches for stealthy troop extractions in tight areas where Black Hawk helicopters can't squeeze. Outside of assault and extraction, which are still best left to the on-board pilots, the Unmanned Little Bird can perform all of these tasks.
The UBL platform is based on the MD 530F "Little Bird" helicopter, which has been flown since 1982. It's powered by a 485kW Rolls-Royce 250-C30 turboshaft engine and can be flown conventionally with either one or two pilots on-board. And like other autonomous aircraft, it can can be programmed to fly itself or be flown remotely. Even more impressive is its ability to autonomously land on moving targets like truck convoys and, more recently, ships on the open ocean. "It is one thing to land a UAV on a helipad compensating for winds," said Dino Cerchie, Boeing Unmanned Little Bird program manager, in a press statement. "It's a whole other level when you also have translational and rotational motion of the ship deck to address."
In addition to its front-line duties, the Unmanned Little Bird platform is also used as a training aircraft for new pilots as as well as a technology demonstrator and test bed for both military and civilian devices.