More Bad News for Boeing's Unmanned A160

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Things are not going well for Boeing's accident-prone A160T Hummingbird unmanned helicopter. First the US Army confirms it has abandoned plans to deploy the A160 to Afghanistan carrying DARPA's ARGUS-IS wide-area sensor, following the crash of an aircraft carrying the gigapixel camera.

Photo: Boeing

Then the Army's Aviation Applied Technology Directorate (AATD) releases its justification for awarding Lockheed Martin a $47 million sole-source contract to use the Kaman K-Max as a testbed for unmanned technologies. Any reference to the A160 is heavily redacted with black ink, but it's clear the Hummingbird's accident record -- including a fire on the assembly line -- was a big factor.

The Army had planned to deploy three ARGUS-equipped A160s to Afghanistan this month to monitor insurgent network activity, but the service issued a stop-work order after the crash in April.

"Given the challenges experienced on the A160 program and the probability of continued technical and schedule delays, the projected cost and risk involved in completing the ARGUS A160 effort with Boeing has increased so significantly that program continuation is no longer in the best interest of the government," the Army says. "This combined with indications that the desired results of deployment with ARGUS payload can no longer be achieved as planned has resulted in the Army issuing a stop work order on June 8."

AATD's justification for non-competitively awarding the Autonomous Technologies for Unmanned Air Systems (ATUAS) demonstration contract to Lockheed, meanwhile, says the (unidentified, but unmistakable in context) A160 suffered two Class A accidents in 2010 while "a third aircraft being built for the USMC unmanned cargo effort suffered an electrical fire requiring a major rebuild. These incidents indicate the [A160] has yet to reach a level of reliability that would support the ATUAS program goals."

An A160 crashed at Victorville, California, in July 2010 during a test flight, while another aircraft flown by US Special Operations Command crashed in Belize in September 2010 while carrying DARPA's Forester foliage-penetration radar. The July crash was blamed on a flight-control sensor malfunction and the September crash resulted in tail-rotor modifications. The problems prevented the A160 being deployed to Afghanistan to resupply Marine Corps bases.

The latest crash, on April 17, occurred during a ARGUS calibration test flight. The aircraft lost engine power and went into autorotation mode, the Army says, coming down about 3 miles from the Victorville runway. An Army investigation found a failed transmission mount caused by excessive vibration. The crash "resulted in excessive damage to the ARGUS payload and aircraft," the Army says.

The A160 ARGUS operational demonstration was planned to inform an Army decision on whether to launch a VTOL UAS program of record. "There has not been a decision to halt plans to hold a VTOL competition," the service says. "The Army is still committed to a VTOL program and is awaiting completion of the AoA [analysis of alternatives] to determine the path forward for the acquisition strategy."

The AoA is being conducted jointly with the US Navy, which has already cancelled its plans for a medium-range VTOL UAS program for budget reasons. With the A160's reliability issues, it looks like the hopes for a VTOL program of record rest on the experience gained flying the unmanned K-Max in Afghanistan, where so far it has performed flawlessly carrying cargo to remote Marine Corps outposts.


Photo: US Marine Corps

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