A decade-long investment in the unmanned, long-endurance A160 Hummingbird helicopter is set to enter a final proving phase at the end of the month.

Boeing plans to deliver the first of 20 new production aircraft assembled in Mesa, Arizona by the end of June to a flight-test facility in Victorville, California.

Two more aircraft will quickly follow of the production line, with all three headed to Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, in early July, said Jeff Hunt, Boeing's A160T production manager.

A160T Hummingbird UAV
 © Boeing

In Yuma, the A160 will attempt to demonstrate that it can perform the resupply mission better than the Kaman/Lockheed Martin K-Max helicopter. Both aircraft are competing for the opportunity to perform a proof-of-concept demonstration in Afghanistan next year.

Some US military officials are hoping unmanned aircraft have reached a point of maturity where they can reliably replace trucks and manned helicopters on Afghanistan's dangerous roads and air corridors.

The A160 has been in development for more than 10 years. It has succeeded in performing a record, 18h endurance flight, and demonstrated the ability to hover at 20,000ft (6,100m). But the aircraft, which features an optimum speed rotor, also has a mixed safety record.

Last year, Boeing committed to self-fund the production of 20 A160Ts white tails. The aircraft will be produced at a rate of one a month until the end of next year.

The army also is in discussions with Boeing to deploy an existing A160 equipped with a special reconnaissance payload to Afghanistan.

"The hope is we will be signing something this year," said Vic Sweberg, director of Boeing's unmanned airborne systems division.

So far, the division has secured one major production contract by the US Navy and Marine Corps for the Integrator unmanned aircraft system developed by subsidiary Insitu.

It has a variety of other concepts in production or development, including the A160, Phantom Ray, Phantom Eye and Unmanned Little Bird, but without any customers.

"We'll ride it out," Sweberg said, "and make it a successful business sooner rather than later."

Source: Flight Daily News