Hopped-up Helicopters: DARPA funds radically faster, stronger aircraft

Four companies get nod to build first Vertical take-off and landing X Plane

Boeing (top), Karem Aircraft (middle) and Sikorsky (bottom)—
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency today embarked on it plan to build a super vertical take off and landing or VTOL aircraft that can fly fast and carry a big load.

DARPA said it has awarded Phase 1 of anticipated  three phase award contracts to Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation; The Boeing Company; Karem Aircraft; Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation to begin developing the VTOL X-Plane which is expected to fly in the neighborhood of 460 MPH and carry some  12.5% of its gross weight in cargo.  The plane's gross weight should come in between 10,000 lb. - 12,000 lbs., DARPA stated.

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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.  There are plenty of fast helicopters --  one of the world's fastest helicopters, the Eurocopter X3 can hit nearly 300 MPH -- but they are usually limited in the amount of weight they can carry.  Jets with VTOL capability have advanced - such as the F-35 but their mission is to be hauling cargo.

"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."

 "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."

All four winning companies proposed designs for unmanned vehicles, but the technologies that VTOL X-Plane intends to develop could apply equally well to manned aircraft. Another common element among the designs is that they all incorporate multipurpose technologies to varying degrees. Multipurpose technologies decrease the number of systems in a vehicle and its overall mechanical complexity. Multipurpose technologies also use space and weight more efficiently to improve performance and enable new and improved capabilities.

The next major milestone for VTOL X-Plane is scheduled for late 2015, when the four performers are required to submit preliminary designs. At that point, DARPA plans to review the designs to decide which to build as a technology demonstrator, with the goal of performing flight tests in the 2017-18 timeframe. 

DARPA wants a VTOL X-Plane technology demonstrator that can:

  • Achieve a top sustained flight speed of 300 kt-400 kt 9ABOUT 460 MPH)
  • Raise aircraft hover efficiency from 60% to at least 75%
  • 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% of the vehicle's projected gross weight of 10,000-12,000 pounds.

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