DARPA's Top 10 wicked cool high-tech aviation systems

When it comes to developing leading edge aviation technologies, few organizations can match the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The advanced scientific outfit was formed 50 years ago this year and has in its history introduced the world to a host of revolutionary aviation technologies such as Have Blue, which became the F-117 stealth fighter as well as the Predator and Global Hawk, unmanned air vehicles flying today in Iraq. Recently the agency's director, Tony Tether gave wide ranging congressional testimony about DARPA's broad areas of research and development that included a look at some of its more recent aviation research. This slideshow looks at 10 of the hottest developments in the field of flight gleaned from that testimony.

1. Falcon.

The Falcon program has been working to improve the US capability to promptly reach other points on the globe. A major goal of the program is to flight test key hypersonic cruise vehicle technologies in a realistic flight environment. Recently DARPA conducted low- and high-speed wind tunnel tests that validate the stability and control of the hypersonic technology vehicle. According to Darpa'S Web site the Falcon program objectives are to develop and demonstrate hypersonic technologies that will enable prompt global reach missions. This capability is envisioned to entail a reusable Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle (HCV) capable of delivering 12,000 pounds of payload at a distance of 9,000 nautical miles from CONUS in less than two hours.

2. Blackswift.

By the end of 2012, DARPA hopes to get the Blackswift to take off under its own turbojet power from a runway, accelerate to Mach 6 under combined turbojet/scramjet propulsion, and land on a runway. The joint DARPA/USAF Blackswift flight test program will develop a reusable, air-breathing hypersonic aircraft that will ultimately be the underpinnings of a future reusable hypersonic cruise vehicle for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, strike or other national need missions.

3. Rapid Eye.

The Rapid Eye program is working to place a high-altitude, long-endurance platform quickly over any spot on earth. Rapid Eye will create the capability to deliver a persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance asset anywhere worldwide within one hour. The program will develop a high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft that can be put on existing space launch systems, withstand atmosphere re-entry, and provide efficient propulsion in a low oxygen, low-speed environment. Rapid Eye's response time will be hours, not days.

4. Oblique Flying wing.

DARPA's Oblique Flying Wing program will demonstrate a design concept for a new class of efficient supersonic aircraft capable of flying in a swept configuration with low supersonic wave drag and a non-swept configuration increasing subsonic efficiency. This flexibility will improve range, response time, fuel efficiency, and endurance for supersonic strike, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and transport missions. The goal of the program is to prove out the stability and control technologies required for an oblique flying wing with an X-plane that will demonstrate an asymmetric, variable sweep, tailless, supersonic flying wing.

5. X-Plane.

DARPA says it has completed the baseline X-plane design, and conducted ground-breaking, high-speed wind tunnel testing of a subscale model tailless oblique flying wing last September. At the tactical level, the Heliplane program will help us quickly reach areas that don't have runways by developing a revolutionary air vehicle that can take-off, land, and hover vertically like a helicopter and cruise with the speed and efficiency of a fixed-wing aircraft. Heliplane offers a two- to three-fold improvement in forward flight characteristics over conventional helicopters. Unlike a helicopter that relies on a rotor for both hover and cruise, the Heliplane adapts lifting mechanisms to achieve high efficiency throughout its flight envelope: a rotor in hover and slow-speed flight and a fixed wing combined with turbofan engines for high-speed flight.

6. The A160 helicopter.

The A160 is an unmanned helicopter designed for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions with long endurance - up to 18 to 20 hours - and the ability to hover at high altitudes. The A160 concept is being evaluated for surveillance and targeting, communications and data relay, crew recovery, resupply of forces in the field, and special operations missions in support of Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and other needs.

7. The Vulture.

The Vulture program will develop an aircraft capable of remaining on-location for over five years, pushing technology and design so that the system will not require refueling or maintenance. Our vision reflects a fundamental change in the nature of airborne surveillance - the previously unimagined endurance of a Vulture aircraft will provide a breakthrough in both quality, quantity and timeliness. A single Vulture aircraft could support traditional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance functions over country-sized areas - while at the same time providing an unblinking eye over a critical target, monitoring that target night and day, day in and day out, month after month - providing unprecedented high-value intelligence. Vulture aircraft will also be able to provide communications capabilities available today only from geostationary satellites - offering opportunities for new, more flexible, expandable and relocatable communication architectures at a fraction of the cost of dedicated satellite capabilities. The challenges here include developing solar cell, energy storage, and reliability technologies that will allow the aircraft to operate continuously, unrefueled for over 44,000 hours. The Vulture program will conclude with a year-long flight demonstration with a fully functional payload.

8. Titanium.

Titanium is of increasing importance in the development of light, stealthy aircraft. The DARPA Titanium Initiative to produce aerospace-grade titanium at $3.50 per pound is continuing with scale-up efforts to increase capability to 500 pounds per day. This program developed a continuous chemical reduction process that extracts both pure titanium metal and titanium alloy powders from inexpensive feedstock, and a meltless production process for fabricating aircraft parts inexpensively.

9. Fuel.

To help reduce the military's reliance on petroleum-based fuels to power their aircraft, ground vehicles, and ships, DARPA's BioFuels program is working to develop an affordable surrogate for military jet fuel (JP8) derived from oil-rich crops such as rapeseed, other plants, algae, fungi, and bacteria. Initial efforts in the BioFuels program have already delivered BioFuel samples that have passed the key JP8 initial qualification tests - these are BioFuels whose performance is indistinguishable from petroleum-based JP8. The BioFuels program is expanding the development of processes for cellulosic and algal feedstocks with the ultimate objective of providing for an affordable, significant, and diverse supply of military jet fuel.

10. Lasers.

Defending an aircraft is no easy feat with some of the advanced weaponry out there. The High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS) aims to address that issue. The HELLADS program offers reduced size and weight so that the system can be mounted on a variety of aircraft platforms for self- protection. HELLADS is developing a high-energy laser weapon system (approximately 150 kilowatts) with an order-of-magnitude reduction in weight compared to existing laser systems. With a weight goal of less than five kilograms per kilowatt, HELLADS allows for new and innovative capabilities, such as use on tactical aircraft systems for effective self-defense against even the most advanced surface-to-air missiles.

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