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DARPA: Speed, Efficiency Key to Future VTOL Designs

By By Andrew Parker, Editor-in-Chief | March 21, 2013
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The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched its vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) X-Plane program to challenge industry engineers to dream up “novel concepts” for the next generation of vertical lift.

During a conference call with reporters, VTOL X-Plane Program Manager Ashish Bagai said that one of the main objectives is to “not just revisit existing methods or approaches, but [come up with] brand new ideas,” as well as the systems that support these new vertical lift concepts. He doesn’t want to add to existing “already complex” rotorcraft designs, but rather advance “very aggressive solutions” that will allow a VTOL aircraft to travel at speeds topping 300 knots while improving on existing capabilities. The ideal proposal will merge rotary and fixed-wing approaches to find the “elegant confluence of these engineering design paradigms.”

Bagai added that systems integration is another important aspect to DARPA’s approach. “How do you put the parts and subsystems together to improve the system’s efficiency, so that the system operates at a greater efficiency than the sum of its parts?” He noted that the “design space is wide open. We’re agnostic about what the aircraft will look like and encouraging the development of concepts and innovations.”




The contracts for VTOL X-Plane will be divided into three stages over 52 months (four years and four months), with an estimated budget of $130 million. According to Bagai, the first phase is “an advanced conceptual technology maturation phase, and that is the focus at this point. We’re anticipating multiple awards for that. Phases 2 and 3 are system design and development integration phases, leading into flight test.”

He added that DARPA is looking for submissions from a broad base of potential suppliers, and not just the traditional major helicopter OEMs. The agency would like to “see what unique capabilities that small companies have to offer, in terms of technology, but also in terms of agile teaming and rapid design—that’s another important aspect of performing to this program.”

According to DARPA, one of the biggest aerodynamic challenges of the past 50 years has been increasing the speed of vertical lift platforms, which tend to be the most versatile in terms of the number of applications a helicopter can perform, including for military, SAR, air medical and other missions.

For the past half-decade, Bagai noted in a statement, “we have seen jets go higher and faster while VTOL aircraft speeds have flatlined and designs have become increasingly complex.” The X-Plane challenge is not going to be easy, he continued. “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 between the fixed-wing and rotary-wing worlds.”
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