January 4, 2012: The U.S. Army is sending three A-160 helicopter UAVs to Afghanistan, each of them equipped with a very powerful ARGUS sensor. ARGUS-IS is basically a huge 1.8 giga (billion) pixel camera (which consists of 368 5 megapixel sensors). When operating at 3,200 meters (20,000 feet) altitude, the ARGUS-IS camera watches 40 square kilometers (a circular area 7.2 kilometers in diameter). The camera periodically transmits a picture of all that to the ground station. There, operators can select a smaller area and have the camera send a higher resolution image of the selected area (sharp enough to show individuals) as video (15 frames a second). What makes all this work is a powerful, parallel processing computer in the five meter long, 230 kg (500 pound) pod that carries the camera. The computer compresses the images enough so that the bandwidth available can handle the huge amounts of data being sent down. The pod was designed to be carried by a helicopter, as it works best if it stays stationary.
The A-160 was selected to carry ARGUS because it can handle the weight of this sensor and stay in the air for a long time. For the last eleven years, the U.S. Department of Defense has been developing a helicopter UAV designed to stay in the air for over twelve hours at a time. Two years ago, the A-160T Hummingbird stayed in the air for 18.7 hours, at altitudes up to 5,000 meters (15,000 feet), while carrying a 136 kg (300 pound) load (to simulate a sensor package). The first flight test of the Hummingbird Unmanned Aerial Vehicle took place nine years ago.
The A-160T is a small helicopter, able to fly under remote control or under its own pre-programmed control. The two ton vehicle has a top speed of 255 kilometers an hour and was originally designed to operate for up to 40 hours, carrying a payload of 136 kg. Maximum altitude was to be about 10,000 meters (30,000 feet) and its advanced flight controls were to be capable of keeping it airborne in weather that would ground manned helicopters.
The A-160 has been seeking a buyer for over three years. Now the army is confident enough in the T-160, and the U.S. Air Force developed ARGUS to merge the two and see if the resulting system can stay in the air for 12 or more hours at a time. The army plans to keep the A-160/ARGUS systems in Afghanistan for a year, to see if it can handle a combat environment and make a contribution. If successful, more will be obtained.