DARPA aims to pack speed into vertical flight

Pentagon researchers want to reinvent vertical take-off and land aircraft

DARPA aims to pack speed into vertical flight

By Jen Upshaw Swartz
M1 Editor

WASHINGTON —  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency likes aircraft that go straight up, but today's helos and other vertical take-off and landing craft are just too pokey. 

Higher speeds, increased efficiency, elegant designs are the focus of the new VTOL X-Plane, DARPA researchers said this week. The program aims to retain the handy straight-up-and-down feature "without compromising the aircraft's lift to power in hover or its efficiency during long-range flight."

What's cool about VTOL aircraft is they are great for all kinds of operations. Currently, only helos can maneuver in tight spots, land anywhere without preparation, move in all directions, and park midair, researchers note. Perfect for transporting troops, conducting surveillance, launching search-and-rescue missions, and of course, special ops.

The problem is they are slug-like hightailing it out of bad situations; no good for anyone, especially special operators and medics. 

"Since its invention, engineers have attempted to overcome this design barrier but have encountered lower fuel efficiency and less lift capacity, controllability, simplicity, and reliability of design," a DARPA news release points out. "While engineers have improved the speed of fixed-wing aircraft - achieving two and three times the speeds of jets designed since the 1960s, attempts to increase efficient VTOL aircraft speed have stalled."

"For the past 50 years, we have seen jets go higher and faster while VTOL aircraft speeds have flat-lined and designs have become increasingly complex," said Ashish Bagai, DARPA program manager. "To overcome this problem, DARPA has launched the VTOL X-Plane program to challenge industry and innovative engineers to concurrently push the envelope in four areas: speed, hover efficiency, cruise efficiency and useful load capacity.

"We have not made this easy," Bagai said. "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 from the fixed-wing and rotary-wing worlds. The elegant confluence of these engineering design paradigms is where this program should find some interesting results."

A proposers' day is set for March 14. Read the contact notice here.