In advance of tests on a French navy La Fayette-class frigate late this year, Boeing's H-6U Unmanned Little Bird (ULB) has performed autonomous landings and take-offs from a leased oil-rig tender off Ft Lauderdale, Florida.
Two safety pilots were on board, one watching out for air traffic and one monitoring the landings, but they kept their hands off the controls as the helicopter flew itself under the command of a ground station on the ship's bridge.
The tests used a differential-GPS relative navigation system in which the ship and helicopter exchanged their positions via datalink, and software that allowed the aircraft to anticipate deck motion. The sea was pretty calm for the trials, but if you watch the video closely you can see the ULB move up and down in synch with the deck.
Boeing has demonstrators for two different versions of the Unmanned Little Bird. One is a 3,100lb gross-weight aircraft based on the commercial MD Helicopters MD 530. The other is a 4,700lb gross-weight aircraft based on Boeing's MH-6M Mission Enhanced Little Bird (MELB) - an MD 530 with the engine and rotor system from the larger MD 600N.
While the heavier bird is being aimed at US Army and Navy requirements for VTOL unmanned aircraft, the lighter ULB is compliant with Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) restrictions and being is targeted internationally. The lighter H-6U is a Cat 2 aircraft under MTCR and therefore more exportable than the heavier, Cat 1 aircraft, Boeing believes.