Special Operations: Commando UAVs Are Very Different


May 8, 2009: U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has doubled its order, to 20, for the new A160T Hummingbird UAVs. After a decade of development, the helicopter UAV now has an official designation; YMQ-18A. Deliveries have already begun, after SOCOM ordered ten last Fall.

The YMQ-18A was developed as part of a U.S. Department of Defense effort to create a helicopter UAV that could stay in the air for over twelve hours at a time. The most recent test had a YMQ-18A staying in the air for 18.7 hours, at altitudes up to 15,000 feet, while carrying a 300 pound load (to simulate a typical sensor package). This set a record for unmanned UAVs weighing between half a ton and 2.5 tons. When the YMQ-18A landed, it still had 90 minutes worth of fuel left. The first flight test of the Hummingbird Unmanned Aerial Vehicle took place seven years ago.

The YMQ-18A is a small helicopter, able to fly under remote control or under its own pre-programmed control. The three 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 300 pounds. Max payload is over half a ton. Maximum altitude was to be about 30,000 feet, and its advanced flight controls were to be capable of keeping it airborne in weather that would ground manned helicopters.

The YMQ-18A can also be armed, and one has been configured with stubby wings, capable of carrying eight (hundred pounds each) Hellfire missiles. The U.S. Navy is interested in the YMQ-18A, because it can operate off any ship with a helipad. SOCOM wants the YMQ-18A because it can hover, and because it is actually very quiet. The chopper can deliver supplies to Special Forces teams at night, as well as assist with intelligence gathering. Moreover, the YMQ-18A can carry new sensors that can detect people moving through forests or thick bush below. Most likely, the SOCOM YMQ-18As are headed for Afghanistan, where are plenty of forests up in the mountains. Like other UAVs, the YMQ-18A carries the usual assortment of day and night video cameras, plus laser rangefinder and laser designator.

The YMQ-18A had some competition in the RQ-8B Fire Scout, which can stay in the air for up to eight hours at a time (five hour missions are more common), has a top speed of 230 kilometers an hour, and can operate over 200 kilometers from its controller (on land, or a ship.) The RQ-8A is being developed for use on smaller navy ships, as well as with army combat units. The navy has recently been testing the RQ-8A on ships at sea.

The U.S. Army version of the RQ-8A will be particularly useful supporting combat operations in urban areas. Both the RQ-8A and the YMQ-18A carry day and night cameras, GPS and targeting gear (laser range finders and designators). The RQ-8 is based on a two seat civilian helicopter (the Schweizer Model 333), and has a maximum takeoff weight of 1.5 tons. With its rotors folded (for storage on ships), the RQ-8 is 23 feet long and 9.4 feet high. Max payload is 600 pounds, meaning it would probably carry hundred pound Hellfire, or 44 pound Viper Strike missiles. Each RQ-8 UAV costs about $8 million (including a share of the ground control equipment and some spares.) The flight control software enables the RQ-8 to land and take off automatically. The YMQ-18A is expected to have similar features, but cost at least 20 percent more. However, with this early order from SOCOM, the YMQ-18A has an opportunity to gain valuable combat experience. If the reviews are positive, the RQ-8A will lose market share to the "combat proven" YMQ-18A.



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