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US spec-ops get robot whispercopter kill fleet this month

Droid choppers can also carry passengers

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The US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) secret military forces are receiving their first robotic whisper-mode helicopters, according to reports. The plan is for the you-never-saw-us-we-aren't-even-here brigade to receive a ten-strong fleet of Boeing A160T "Hummingbird" droid kill-choppers, under an extended demonstration programme.

The A160T armed variant

Black ops.

News of the A160T shipments came recently courtesy of Janes, who quoted Boeing's John Groenenboom as saying that "deliveries are already underway", and should be complete by the end of this month.

The A160T is unmanned, but that's in many ways the least interesting thing about it. The new robo-chopper stands out more for its variable-speed rotor technology, which allows it to do things that other helicopters can't.

An A160T can stay up without refuelling for 20 hours, for instance, and is able to hover without ground effect at much higher altitudes than other helicopters - up to 20,000 feet according to Boeing. Company execs also claim that it is "four times quieter" than an ordinary Bell 407 small copter.

Stealthy A160Ts could carry out a variety of different missions for the secret supertroopers of SOCOM. It can carry the "FORESTER" foliage-penetrating radar, to sniff out enemies of democracy lurking deep in the woods. It is also slated to lift the ARGUS-IS multiplex spyeye system, able to watch many suspect buildings, cars, people etc at once; rather than just one.

These and other surveillance payloads are to a large extent what the A160T was designed for, making special use of its long endurance and high hover capabilities. However, there will of course be an option to arm it with laser-guided Hellfire missiles, Viper Strike smartglider minibombs or what have you. The robocopter will also be able to drop off loads of supplies - up to 1,000lb - to SOCOM SEALs, Green Berets, Force-Recon types etc operating deep in enemy territory.

There may even be an option for the crewless chopper to carry passengers, perhaps wounded operatives or shot-down aviators in need of urgent evacuation.

The robotic whisper-whirlybird was, like so many of America's more avant-garde innovations, developed by the maverick military edge-bleed experts at DARPA. If the variable-speed copters turn out as well as has been claimed, the technology - like IP networking, another DARPA creation - might find wider application in coming years. The rotorcraft world might soon, erm, beat a path to DARPA's door. ®

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