UAS & Robotics

DARPA developing ‘radical’ copter/plane hybrid

VTOL Experimental Plane

Artist's concepts (from top) by Boeing, Karem and Sikorsky.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded four contracts for the first phase of a plane that can take off and land like a helicopter but actually fly like a real plane.

The agency is looking for “innovative cross-pollination between the fixed-wing and rotary-wing worlds” in developing the VTOL Experimental Plane (VTOL X-Plane), according to an announcement. DARPA has awarded prime contracts to Aurora Flight Sciences, Boeing, Karem Aircraft and Sikorsky Aircraft.

Vertical takeoff and landing, or VTOL, aircraft have always had to sacrifice range or efficiency in order to increase speed, DARPA said. The VTOL X-Plane project is looking is looking for “radical” improvements in both vertical and cruise flight capabilities.

“We were looking for different approaches to solve this extremely challenging problem, and we got them,” said Ashish Bagai, DARPA program manager. “The proposals we’ve chosen aim to create new technologies and incorporate existing ones that VTOL designs so far have not succeeded in developing. We’re eager to see if the performers can integrate their ideas into designs that could potentially achieve the performance goals we’ve set.”

The program is looking for a prototype that could:

  • Achieve a top sustained flight speed of 300 knots to 400 knots.
  • Raise aircraft hover efficiency from 60 percent to at least 75 percent.
  • Present a more favorable cruise lift-to-drag ratio of at least 10, up from 5 to 6, to improve cruise efficiency.
  • Carry a useful load of at least 40 percent of the vehicle’s projected gross weight of 10,000 to 12,000 pounds.

The four companies submitted plans for unmanned aircraft, but DARPA said the VTOL X-Plane program plans to develop technologies that would be useful to both manned and unmanned aircraft.

The program, with a total planned budget of $130 million, is set to take place across three phases in a 52-months stretch starting in October 2013, when the program was announced, through February 2018. The first flight demonstration is expected 42 months from the initial contract awards, which would put the demonstration in September 2017.

DARPA allocated $47 million for the Phase I, which covers concept design and technology maturation, and will choose one of the Phase I contractors to move ahead into Phase II, for design, development and integration, and Phase III, which will cover the flight-test demonstrations.

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