Military lays out millions for ultra-endurance aircraft

 Looks like the Vulture will get the chance to fly.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Vulture program ultimately will build an unmanned aircraft capable of carrying a 1,000-pound payload on five kilowatts of power and can stay airborne for an uninterrupted period of at least five years while remaining in the required mission airspace 99% of the time.

DARPA this week picked Aurora Flight Sciences, Boeing ($3.8 million) and Lockheed Martin as contractors for the first phase of the Vulture program. Aurora on Wednesday will detail its submission known as Odysseus, a solar-powered modular aircraft with a 492ft wingspan. Aurora said Odysseus will be made up of three separate flying modules that will link up in the air. The sections can undock and be replaced when they are spent.

During the program’s first phase, a 12-month analytical effort, the three contractor teams will conduct studies to determine the design concept that best satisfies the operational tasks and optimizes design capability. They will also explore various vehicle configurations while concentrating on reliability and mission assurance design aspects. The phase will conclude with a concept design review of sub-scale and full-scale demonstration vehicles and the supporting technology development plan to reduce risk on key technologies, DARPA stated.

Vulture will use space satellite operations and design paradigms, in which long life and extreme reliability are routine, and bring this concept to the realm of aircraft operations in order to provide a level of mission reliability previously unknown in aircraft operations. Vulture will provide pseudo-satellite benefits such as increased platform availability and consistent and persistent coverage, and allow smaller fleet sizes.

DARPA said the Vulture program will focus on developing innovative technologies and approaches for in-flight energy collection or refueling and ultra-reliable systems or systems able to be repaired in-flight. Other new technologies that will be developed and that are key to the ability of the Vulture system to provide the desired mission reliability include multi-junction photovoltaic cells, high specific energy fuel cells, extremely efficient propulsion systems, in-flight precision autonomous materiel transfer and docking, extremely efficient vehicle structural design, mitigation of environmentally induced loads, and innovative vehicle control concepts. In the program’s second phase,

DARPA contractors will refine the demonstrator designs, continue technology development and risk reduction efforts, and conduct an uninterrupted three-month flight test of a sub-scale demonstrator. The third and final phase of the program will consist of a flight test of the full-scale demonstrator vehicle, during which the Vulture system will demonstrate the ability to operate continuously for 12 months.

DARPA has numerous advanced flight technologies in the works.  Last month the agency opened competition for contract reportedly valued at $750 million for a hypersonic aircraft known as Blackswift that can take-off and land on a runway and of course handle that barrel roll maneuver.   

The ultimate flight demonstration shall consist of a powered take-off, climb and acceleration to a Mach 6+ cruise speed, sustain this Mach 6+ cruise speed in level flight for at least 60 seconds, and demonstrate maneuverability by executing an aileron roll and land under power. It is envisioned that flying this reusable hypersonic testbed in a relevant, flight environment will permit the future development of enhanced-capability reusable hypersonic cruise vehicles for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, strike or other national need missions."  

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