After decades of Pentagon neglect punctuated by false starts on several helicopter projects run by the U.S. Army and one by the Navy, U.S. military vertical-lift aviation is poised to achieve historic advances, contributor Richard Whittle writes in the October issue of Rotor & Wing International.
Over the next two years, Whittle reports, at least five manned and unmanned advanced vertical-lift technology demonstrator aircraft for the U.S. military are scheduled to fly, each offering far more speed and other capabilities over conventional helicopters. Production contracts could follow.
He also notes that a flurry of experimentation and development by NASA and the private industry with the emerging breed of electric-propulsion aircraft, while so far confined largely to civilian aviation, has begun to attract interest and possible future investment from the Pentagon.
Look for Whittle's full report Sept. 30.
That report comes as Bell Helicopter prepares to trumpet an unmanned derivative of its V-280 Valor contender for the Pentagon’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program this week at the Modern Day Marine show in Quantico, Virginia. On Sept. 23, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies hosted an update on progress in the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator (JMR-TD) initiative for FVL.
Bell's V-280 and Sikorsky and Boeing's FVL contender, the SB>1 Defiant, are among the five advanced aircraft slated to fly in the next two years.
DARPA's Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node drone is slated to fly by the end of 2018. Photo courtesy of DARPA
“We’ve made a lot of progress in the last year and a half because resources came to bear,” the U.S. Army’s JMR program director, Dan Bailey, told Whittle. Bailey noted that Congress has “plussed up” the JMR budget line last year and this year. “I’m hopeful that they’ll continue to plus us up in the next year.”
Another advanced vertical-flight aircraft due to fly within two years is an avant garde, hybrid-electric aircraft being developed by Aurora Flight Sciences of Manassas, Virginia, under an $89.4 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) contract. Dubbed LightningStrike, the odd-looking, 12,000-lb, unmanned craft will use a 6,150-shp Rolls-Royce AE1107C gas-turbine engine to power three 1-MW electric generators. They, in turn, will power 24 individually controlled ducted fans, 18 embedded in a tilting wing and six embedded in a tilting forward canard used to transition from vertical to horizontal flight.
DARPA picked Aurora from four competitors to build this VTOL X-Plane, as it’s called, to take off and land vertically, hover with greater agility than any helicopter and fly at sustained speeds of 300 to 400 kt.
The fourth advanced bird moving toward first flight next year is another DARPA VTOL technology demonstrator called Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System, a 7,000-lb unmanned aircraft intended to carry modular “plug-and-play” payload pods for cargo, personnel, weapons, sensors or even a tactical wheeled vehicle.
Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor with Essington, Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft building the aircraft for the ARES, which uses tilting ducted fans to convert from vertical takeoff to horizontal cruise. The idea of ARES, a Piasecki-patented concept, is to vastly increase the mobility and range of small military units.
The fifth VTOL demonstrator, slated to fly by the end of 2018, is DARPA’s Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN), a drone as big as the U.S. Air Force’s 10,500-lb maximum takeoff weight General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper.
Northrop Grumman last year won a $93 million contract to build what DARPA describes as “a tailsitting, flying-wing aircraft with twin counter-rotating, nose-mounted propellers” that would lift the aircraft from a ship deck, orient it for horizontal flight and provide propulsion to complete a mission.
The TERN program aims to provide small Navy ships with their own long-endurance drone for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and other missions.