DARPA Announces VTOL X-Plane Phase 2 Design

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Unorthodox unmanned aircraft would push the limits of technology to combine plane-like speed and helicopter-like agility into one breakthrough vehicle!

For decades, aircraft designers seeking to improve vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capabilities have endured a substantial set of interrelated challenges. Dozens of attempts have been made to increase top speed without sacrificing range, efficiency or the ability to do useful work, with each effort struggling or failing in one way or another.

DARPA’s VTOL Experimental Plane (VTOL X-Plane) program aims to overcome these challenges through innovative cross-pollination between fixed-wing and rotary-wing technologies and by developing and integrating novel subsystems to enable radical improvements in vertical and cruising flight capabilities. In an important step toward that goal, DARPA has awarded the Phase 2 contract for VTOL X-Plane to Aurora Flight Sciences.

“Just when we thought it had all been done before, the Aurora team found room for invention—truly new elements of engineering and technology that show enormous promise for demonstration on actual flight vehicles,” said Ashish Bagai, DARPA program manager. “This is an extremely novel approach,” Bagai said of the selected design. “It will be very challenging to demonstrate, but it has the potential to move the technology needle the farthest and provide some of the greatest spinoff opportunities for other vertical flight and aviation products.”

VTOL X-Plane seeks to develop a technology demonstrator that could:

  • Achieve a top sustained flight speed of 300 kt to 400 kt
  • 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 5-6
  • Carry a useful load of at least 40 percent of the vehicle’s projected gross weight of 10,000-12,000 pounds

Aurora’s Phase 2 design for VTOL X-Plane envisions an unmanned aircraft with two large rear wings and two smaller front canards—short winglets mounted near the nose of the aircraft. A turboshaft engine—one used in V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft—mounted in the fuselage would provide 3 megawatts (4,000 horsepower) of electrical power, the equivalent of an average commercial wind turbine. The engine would drive 24 ducted fans, nine integrated into each wing and three inside each canard. Both the wings and the canards would rotate to direct fan thrust as needed: rearward for forward flight, downward for hovering and at angles during transition between the two.

The design envisions an aircraft that could fly fast and far, hover when needed and accomplish diverse missions without the need for prepared landing areas. While the technology demonstrator would be unmanned, the technologies that VTOL X-Plane intends to develop could apply equally well to manned aircraft. The program has the goal of performing flight tests in the 2018 timeframe.

Aurora’s unique design is only possible through advances in technology over the past 60 years, in fields such as air vehicle and aeromechanics design and testing, adaptive and reconfigurable control systems, and highly integrated designs. It would also be impossible with the classical mechanical drive systems used in today’s vertical lift aircraft, Bagai said.

The Phase 2 design addresses in innovative ways many longstanding technical obstacles, the biggest of which is that the design characteristics that enable good hovering capabilities are completely different from those that enable fast forward flight. Among the revolutionary design advances to be incorporated in the technology demonstrator:

  • Electric power generation and distribution systems to enable multiple fans and transmission-agnostic air vehicle designs
  • Modularized, cellular aerodynamic wing design with integrated propulsion to enable the wings to perform efficiently in forward flight, hover and when transitioning between them
  • Overactuated flight control systems that could change the thrust of each fan to increase maneuverability and efficiency

“This VTOL X-plane won’t be in volume production in the next few years but is important for the future capabilities it could enable,” Bagai said. “Imagine electric aircraft that are more quiet, fuel-efficient and adaptable and are capable of runway-independent operations. We want to open up whole new design and mission spaces freed from prior constraints, and enable new VTOL aircraft systems and subsystems.”

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DARPA Moves Forward with Fast, Light weight, Autonomy Program… Drones that fly like Birds

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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — the government agency that funds future technology — has awarded $3.4 million to two Cambridge groups to build speedy miniature drones that function as scouts for first responders.

Some day, the idea goes, tiny flying robots will zip into burning, crumbling buildings and scope out the space before firefighters and first-responders enter.
It’s all part of DARPA’s Fast Lightweight Autonomy program that the agency announced in December last year.

In a request for proposals, DARPA compared the agility required of their machines to nature’s aerial champs: “Birds and flying insects maneuver easily at high speeds near obstacles. The FLA program asks the question ‘How can autonomous flying robotic systems achieve similar high-speed performance?’ ”

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Drones with Laser Weapons are coming

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THE FUTURE OFFICIALLY ARRIVES IN 2017

How do you sell the drone of the future? Build a laser into the dang thing. General Atomics, whose iconic Predator and Reaper drones are probably the first thing that come to mind when someone thinks “drone,” is independently funding the integration of a 150-kilowatt laser weapon into its Avenger (or Predator-C) drone. The Avenger is the younger, jet-powered sibling to the iconic “War on Terror” drones, but it still hasn’t yet found its niche. Carrying afreakin’ laser may change that, and make it an attractive tool for the Pentagon.

It helps that the laser is particularly powerful. The American military is developing several laser weapons, like the Army’s truck-carried HEL MD, but that one was first tested with a 10kW laser, with plans to increase it to 50kW and then 100 kW. Last year the U.S. Navy actually deployed a laser weapon to the Persian Gulf, but the Laser Weapon System mounted on the USS Ponce is only 30kW. Power matters, though it’s not the only factor. For a laser to burn through a target, it needs both time and power. Ground- or ship-mounted lasers can afford to be a little weaker since, unlike fast-moving planes, it’s likely they can keep their beam on target longer.

The Avenger flies at up to 460 mph, so its more powerful 150kW laser is one way to ensure it destroys what it hits, whether it’s another drone or an incoming missile. Targeting computers help too.

Defense One notes that the company has its work cut out for it:

Bringing these two technologies together involves a lot more than strapping a laser cannon under the drone’s wings. Hitting a target with a laser mounted on a vibrating platform moving quickly through air laden with dust and water vapor is tougher than launching a Hellfire at a moving vehicle.

“Before you spend any money on a laser you better darn well show that you can acquire, ID, and track the objects of interest so that you could put a laser on them,” said [General Atomics Vice President for Mission Systems Michael] Perry. “You have to be able to compensate for aero-optic distortion.”

The company is currently testing their laser at White Sands in New Mexico. They hope to have a laser on a drone by 2017.

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DARPA Alias project enters phase II; turning manned aircraft into drones

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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded a second contract modification for Phase 2 of its project to develop a system to add autonomous capabilities to existing aircraft.

The research agency gave Aurora Flight Sciences a $15.3 million modification for further development of its Aircrew Labor In-cockpit Automation System, or ALIAS, program which plans to allow for smaller flight crews by allowing the system to take over certain functions. With the modification, the total value of Aurora’s deal rises to $21.4 million.

Earlier this month, DARPA also gave Sikorsky Aircraft a $9.8 million modification, also for the program’s next phase.

During Phase I, Aurora, Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin focused on developing easy-to-use human interfaces that would allow the system to help operate the aircraft without a lot of maintenance from the pilot.

Phase II of the program targets refining the overall system, reducing risk reduction, demonstrating that ALIAS can be installed quickly and flight demonstrations, according to the announcement of Aurora’s contract. The next phase also adds a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter to the fixed-wing aircraft used in demonstrations.

Aurora’s work on Phase II is expected to be finished by December 2016

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DARPA Gremlins: Exploring Drones launched / recovered from Airborne “aircraft carriers”

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The military has two types of long-range weapons systems: missiles that can be fired from great distances and are never seen again, and complex aircraft that remain in use for generations. What they have in common expense, whether they’re one-and-done munitions or aircraft that are costly to build and maintain.

The Pentagon’s lead research arm wants another alternative, looking to develop relatively cheap drones that can be launched from large aircraft or fighters, attack a target or conduct ISR, and then be retrieved in-flight.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has announced aprogram it’s calling Gremlins, looking to prove the feasibility of affordable unmanned systems that can be safely launched and recovered in the air, spreading the payload and airframe costs over as many as 20 uses instead of just one. In addition to reusability, DARPA hopes that the program could save money by making use of existing unmanned aircraft rather than designing new models.

Gremlins—named for the imaginary, mischievous creatures that boosted morale among British pilots in World War II—builds on an idea DARPA put forth in November, with a Request for Information on the idea of using large aircraft, such as C-130 transport or the B-52 bomber as “aircraft carriers” for small drones.

Under the Gremlins plan, groups of drones would be launched from large aircraft such as the C-130 or B-52, or from fighters or other smaller aircraft while those manned aircraft are outside the range of an adversary’s defenses. After the gremlins carry out their mission, a C-130 would round them up and take them back to base, where they could be set up for their next mission within 24 hours, DARPA said.

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DARPA project to add autonomy to existing aircraft moving forward

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Military researchers are moving forward with development of a drop-in system that would bring automation to existing aircraft and allow for smaller crews.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded Sikorsky Aircraft $9.8 million modification  to take the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program to Phase II, which among other things will prepare the system for flight tests. Sikorsky is to demonstrate the Autonomous Crew Enhancement System (ACES) on a cargo resupply mission using a UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter and perform a full demonstration on a fixed-wing aircraft.

ALIAS, being designed to work via a touch and voice interface, won’t entirely replace crews, but would supplement them, reducing pilots’ workloads and taking over in case of system failures. In addition to reducing the size of the crew, it’s also expected to improve aircraft safety and augment mission performance.

In March, DARPA awarded Phase I contracts to Sikorsky, Aurora Flight Sciences and Lockheed Martin for work on developing interfaces with systems capable of operating the aircraft without constant supervision from the pilot. Phase II, in addition to getting Phase 1 systems ready for flight tests, also is intended to strengthen the human-machine interface and demonstrate the system’s portability on the ground.

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Triple growth ahead in UAV spending

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FAIRFAX, Va., Aug. 17 (UPI) — Spending on unmanned aerial vehicles for military and civilian use could triple to more than $120 billion over the next 10 years, a new study says.

The Teal Group, a new market analysis firm, estimates that UAV production worldwide will grow from $4 billion annually and will total $93 billion in the next 10 years.

Spending on military UAV research will add another $30 billion to that.

“The market for UAVs looks very strong, increasingly driven by new technologies such as the next generation of unmanned combat systems, and the development of new markets such as civil and consumer drones,” said Philip Finnegan, Teal Group’s director of corporate analysis and an author of the study, titled World Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems, Market Profile and Forecast 2015.

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Is It a Helicopter? Is It a Plane? Is It a Jeep? Yes.

A plane that laughs at short runways, a helicopter that sneers at slow airspeeds, a Jeep that jumps over IEDs, a robot that fears nothing as it ferries cargo and wounded soldiers in and out of battle zones—all these machines in one small, convenient package—that’s what the military calls “Darpa hard.”

As for Darpa itself—the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—it used to call the experimental vehicle the Transformer, in a nod to the television series about reconfigurable robots. Now, though, the agency has rechristened the vehicle Ares, after the Roman god of war and a tongue-twisting acronym (Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded Systems).

 

Full details here: http://bit.ly/1i56sNz

Boeing Develop Phantom Swift UAS Prototype for DARPA’s VTOL X-Plane Competition…

19 Sep 2013

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking for a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft that can fly fast, hover efficiently and carry a lot of cargo. Thanks to rapid prototyping, a team of Boeing Phantom Works engineers in Philadelphia designed and built a flying subscale model of the innovative Phantom Swift in time to be part of Boeing’s proposal for DARPA’s vertical takeoff and landing X-Plane competition. The scaled model of the Phantom Swift went from being an idea to a flying prototype in less than a month. It will serve the team as a flying laboratory.  More…