UAS and Robotics

Next up for drones: Transformer-style helicopters

A new wing, so to speak, of military unmanned aircraft could be Transformer-like vehicles that can be fitted for different missions and serve soldiers in rugged terrain.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES), currently in the third and final stage of design, would have tilted duct fans that would allow it to take off and land in about half the space required by a helicopter of the same size, according to DARPA. ARES would have swappable modules each designed for a specific purpose — cargo pickup and delivery, casualty extraction or airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

The aircraft could carry up to 3,000 pounds, more than 40 percent of its own weight, and be controlled by troops via apps on mobile phones or rugged tablets. In addition to its vertical capabilities, it could fly at speeds up to 200 knots, according to Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, which is developing ARES along with Piasecki Aircraft.

The motivation behind the program, launched in 2009 as Transformer (TX), was to provide vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities for small units in rugged terrains, DARPA said. There aren’t always enough helicopters to serve every unit, and helicopters might not always suited to certain situations.

“ARES would make organic and versatile VTOL capability available to many more individual units,” said Ashish Bagai, DARPA program manager. “Our goal is to provide flexible, terrain-independent transportation that avoids ground-based threats, in turn supporting expedited, cost-effective operations and improving the likelihood of mission success.”


ARES would have a flight module with a self-contained power system, digital flight controls and remote command-and-control interfaces, DARPA said. The first iteration would be unmanned, with semi-autonomous flight and optional manned/controlled flight possible later.

After soliciting ideas for Transformer (TX), DARPA in 2013 chose the ARES design. It might not look much like the Transformers in the movies, but the design concept does reflect the general idea of a single craft that can be converted for different missions, such as taking cargo from a ship to units in the field, evacuating injured soldiers or supplying ISR to individual units or a command.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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