DARPA wants to build high-tech helicopters on steroids

Vertical take-off and landing X Plane Program looks to break existing speed, cargo limitations

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Engineering an aircraft that can go fast, carry usable amounts of equipment and people and hover has always been one of aviation's greatest challenges.  Sure there are plenty of fast helicopters but they are usually limited in the amount of weight they can carry.  And there have been a few successful vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) jets - the AV-8 Harrier is the industry standard - and while it is fast, it can carry one person, the pilot.

The future-looking folks at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency would like to change all that with a project they call the VTOL X-Plane program.

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DARPA says the goal of the VTOL X-Plane program is to "advance the design and development of new and improved technologies, aircraft concepts and configurations to demonstrate vertical lift aircraft with fundamentally enhanced performance capabilities." The sorts of enhanced performance it is talking about would bring an aircraft that could fly in the neighborhood of 345-400mph rather than the today's top end speeds of about 200mph, DARPA said. 

VTOL X-Planes should also offer radical improvements in VTOL hover time, range and useful loads applicable to future systems, but without degenerating into an aircraft sizing exercise focused on meeting any particular mission specifications or requirements, the agency stated.   

"For the past 50 years, we have seen jets go higher and faster while VTOL aircraft speeds have flat-lined and designs have become increasingly complex," said Ashish Bagai, DARPA program manager. "Strapping rockets onto the back of a helicopter is not the type of approach we're looking for. The engineering community is familiar with the numerous attempts in the past that have not worked. This time, rather than tweaking past designs, we are looking for true cross-pollinations of designs and technologies from the fixed-wing and rotary-wing worlds. The elegant confluence of these engineering design paradigms is where this program should find some interesting results."

The VTOL experimental/demonstrator aircraft will be designed to have a gross weight between 10,000 lb - 12,000 lb, a useful load no less than 40% of the gross weight, and a payload capacity of at least 12.5% of the gross weight, DARPA said. And the VTOL X-Plane program is divided into three phases extending over 52 months, with first flight at 42 months after the initial contract.

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