DARPA, whose mission is to develop cutting edge and even crazy edge technologies to make sure the U.S. military stays ahead of its competitors, did just that in choosing the winner of its Vertical Takeoff and Landing Experiment Aircraft project, aka VTOL X-Plane.
Aurora Flight Sciences was awarded an $89.4 million contract Thursday to build its exotic LightningStrike entry — a strange-looking bird that will rely on something called “distributed electric propulsion” rather than conventional engines.
Aurora now has until September 2018 to build and fly a technology demonstrator of its design, which will use 24 (yes, 24) small ducted fans — 18 in its wing and six in a shorter, wing-like structure near its nose called a canard — to take off and land vertically. The unmanned LightningStrike will then tilt its wing and canard forward to fly faster than any helicopter can. But here’s the truly innovative part: those fans will be driven by individual electric motors running on three megawatts of electricity, the equivalent of 4,023 horsepower, produced by three generators.The generators will be powered by a single Rolls-Royce AE 1107 turbine engine, the same one used on the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor flown by the Marines and Air Force and, soon, by the Navy.
To meet DARPA’s requirements, the LightningStrike must weigh between 10,000 and 12,000 pounds, about the size of a UH-1Y Huey helicopter, cruise faster than 300 knots (345 mph), about 50 knots faster than the V-22, and hover far better than any helicopter in existence.
All four contestants in the competition offered unmanned aircraft designs. The three losing entries, all relying on conventional engines, were:
- A sleek tiltrotor offered by Karem Aircraft, namesake company of Predator drone inventor Abraham Karem.
- A monoplane with swiveling ducted fans on its wingtips and two more embedded in its fuselage offered by Boeing Co.
- A retro-looking “tail-sitter” proposed by a team of Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp. that got started before the latter company bought the former.
It’s no surprise that Aurora offered the most avant garde design. The company was founded and is led by John Langford, who burst on the aeronautical scene a couple of decades ago by leading a team that set a world record for human-powered flight. If the LightningStrike works, the aeronautical engineering world is sure to be, well, electrified.