In light of a massive demand for airborne ISR and an airborne chopper fleet that's stretched thin, the Army is moving to field its very own unmanned spy choppers by mid-decade, according to Army aviation officials.
To kick start the effort, the service hopes to field a Boeing A160 Hummingbird unmanned helicopter equipped with an electro optical/infrared and signals intelligence sensors to Afghanistan within the next year to study how such an aircraft performs in combat.
Depending on how this goes, the service will then look to industry to see who can build an unmanned chopper capable of carrying a variety of sensors at 6,000 feet in 95-degree temperatures and with a flying duration of 12 to 24-hours, said Tim Owings the Army's deputy project manager, unmanned aircraft systems during a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon today.
While the helo will focus on basic ISR missions with the EO/IR cameras at first, it could expand into other roles such as light cargo delivery and more advanced intelligence collection, said Owings. One of the most important features of any new airborne ISR system will be its ability to accept a variety of plug-in sensors ranging from EO/IR pods to Synthetic Aperture Radars that can be swapped out depending on mission requirements, added Owings. "Down the road we'll be focused on multi-int," said Owings, referring the potential aircraft's ability to perform a number of different ISR missions.
"If things go well" with the Hummingbird deployment, the Army plans to conduct an analysis of alternatives to see what options it has to execute this mission sometime next year; the service will then figure out the exact capabilities it wants to see in the aircraft by sometime around mid-to late 2013, said Owings.
All this comes more than a year after the Army cancelled its last effort to field a vertical-take off and landing ISR drone. However, with increased budget constraints and a highly strained Army chopper force, an unmanned chopper could very well help the Army fill capability gaps while easing the burden on its manned aviation fleet which has seen ten years of constant combat.