Paris Air Show

Boeing hi-tech research has many irons in the fire

 - June 20, 2007, 11:21 AM

Hummingbirds are incredibly aerobatic, can hover, fly backward and can even hover and fly upside down. But the most amazing thing about hummingbirds is their endurance–these tiny birds, weighing little more than five grams, fly for 20 hours as they migrate across the Gulf of Mexico.

Endurance is a key requirement of many of the technology projects under way at aerospace giant Boeing, not least its own Hummingbird, otherwise known as the A160. Boeing’s new Hummingbird is the A160T, the previous reciprocating powerplant of this innovative unmanned rotorcraft having been replaced by a Pratt & Whitney turbine engine. This, according to president of advanced systems at Boeing Integrated Defense Systems (IDS), George Muellner, because his (mostly military) customers have a penchant for heavy fuel.

It may not be up to flying upside down, but the A160T successfully made its first 12-minute flight last week, and Boeing expects it to go on to reach endurance levels of 24 hours and eventually up to 36 hours. The 35-foot-long craft features a unique optimum speed rotor technology that significantly improves efficiency, and (as a by-product) makes it extremely quiet, because the control system automatically adjusts rotor speed with altitude, weight and speed. It can fly at speeds of up to 140 knots at altitudes up to 30,000 and can hover as high as 15,000 feet.

“Today’s hover-in-ground-effect flight is our first step in providing the warfighter with persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance coverage that only an unmanned helicopter of this type can provide,” said Jim Martin, A160 program manager. Ten A160Ts will be built for DARPA and the U.S. Special Operations Command.

Tip of the Boeing Iceberg
The Hummingbird is just one small project in a wide array of high-technology projects with which Boeing Advanced Systems is tasked. Its role, says Muellner, is to do the prototype work for Boeing IDS before transferring projects to the relevant part of the IDS business for eventual delivery to customers.

Eighteen months ago Advanced Systems was reorganized into a competency-based organization, said Meullner. “We have three primary roles,” he told reporters at the show, “to expedite the transfer of technology into existing platforms; to win new programs [for example, it has forwarded Boeing’s proposal for Navy UCAVs]; and to go out and explore ‘adjacencies,’ such as border security. Eight months ago we won the secure border initiative with the Department of Homeland Security.”

The DHS proposal was put together by the new Integrated Defense & Security Solutions part of the business, which has been set up by Boeing to pursue contracts with other government agencies such as DHS and the Coast Guard, as well as with civil and international organizations.

Underlying all this activity is the Analysis, Modelling, Simulation and Experimental organization, and underpinning the whole operation is the Phantom Works.

Other IDS Projects
Meullner said that lots of IDS’s recent work has been aimed at supporting deployed forces. Its Scan Eagle UAS is one example. Originally developed by a small company in Puget Sound, near Seattle, to help tuna fishermen, it now is usefully deployed in Iraq feeding streaming video back to base. The endurance theme emerges here again as this craft can fly across the North Atlantic on a gallon and a half of fuel, Meullner said.

Perhaps the most impressive long-endurance vehicle however is the HALE (high-altitude long-endurance) unmanned twin-propeller aircraft. It has a unique hydrogen propulsion system and can fly for more than seven days in the stratosphere (at around 60,000 feet), carrying a 2,000-pound multisensor payload.
Coming down a few thousand feet, Boeing IDS is also ready to start flying its X-48B blended wing-body (BWB) demonstrator from Edwards AFB. This is a joint program with NASA and the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. The aim is to develop a next generation freighter/tanker and according to Meullner, the aircraft “will fly in the next two weeks depending where the Shuttle has to land–east or west” [i.e., Edwards AFB or Kennedy Space Center]. The Shuttle is due to land on June 21 and Edwards is the back-up runway.

The BWB configuration is around 20 percent more efficient than conventional airframes and could be the shape of the next generation of civil airliners; the target timeframe for the X-48B to enter service however is 2015-2020.

IDS is also working on the Navy UCAS-D (X45N), which will be able to operate from aircraft carriers and has been tested (control tests only, rather than landing tests to date) with USS Truman, making 14 autonomous approaches. The aim is for deck handlers to be able to fly the craft using a wrist-mounted joystick.

The X-45A meanwhile was a next-generation strike-bomber, which Boeing was looking at as part of the J-UCAS technology demonstrator program. Technicians at Boeing’s St. Louis facility built a full-scale aircraft to prove the technical feasibility.

High-speed Weapons

Boeing is working on two high-speed weapons projects. The first is Hyfly, a hypersonic flight demonstrator with a dual-combustion ramjet, which will fly at Mach 6 with a 400- to 600-nm range. Just over a week ago the engine was tested successfully at max power, and two flights are expected to take place by the end of this year.

The second project is the X-51 Waverider, which uses a scramjet engine. The demonstrator is designed to accelerate the craft from Mach 4.5 to Mach 6 or 7 to demonstrate sustained propulsion, and that the materials can withstand the conditions, which is the limiting factor. Pratt & Whitney “hot-fired” an X-51 engine recently, Meullner said.

The final project highlighted by Meullner is the opening of a new node of its secure IT network for collaborative working at Qinetiq in the UK, which is set to take place on July 11. The four-year old network has nodes at all Boeing’s main facilities, including Seattle, St. Louis and Colorado Springs. It incorporates the highly secure LabNet network.