In an age of counterinsurgency campaigns and the growing need for persistent manned and unmanned surveillance and quick-strike capabilities in hostile regions, some aircraft makers are looking at smaller designs, and taking the human out of the loop on manned aircraft to fulfill these needs.
Boeing has a few programs in the works, according to Philip Dunford, the company’s vice president / general manager of Rotorcraft Systems, said on Wednesday afternoon at the Paris Air Show. The company is developing an optionally unmanned AH-6U Little Bird helicopter, that can either be flown by a pilot, or fly autonomously on a pre-planned path. Part of the mission package also includes an override function, that allows a pilot - if one is in the aircraft in flight - to take over the controls at any time. The aircraft already has 450 hours of unmanned flying time under its belt, and Dunford said he’s flown in it while it was on a preprogrammed route.
Dunford described another version of the Little Bird, the AH-6i, as “a low-risk, light-attack combat helicopter,” that the company both believes will be affordable, and “we think there’s flexibility for growth in this, so much so that we’re investing our own funds in taking the airplane to high altitudes. We’re going to demonstrate it at 6,000 feet, 95-degree, high-altitude performance capability on it later this year. We’ve developed new blades and we’re upgrading the engine,” and it will be a new-build fuselage. In the end, the price of the helicopter ultimately “depends on the options we put on it, but it will be a significant improvement over" the cancelled Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter.