Vertical takeoff and landing for planes has challenged aircraft designers for decades; attempts to increase top speed without sacrificing range, efficiency, or ability often fail.
But Aurora Flight Sciences this week was awarded a contract to work on an experimental plane for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), known as the VTOL (Vertical Takeoff and Landing) X-Plane, which will essentially function as a helicopter and fighter jet in one.
"Just when we thought it had all been done before, the Aurora team found room for invention—truly new elements of engineering and technology that show enormous promise for demonstration on actual flight vehicles," DARPA Program Manager Ashish Bagai said in a statement.
Aurora's Phase 2 VTOL X-Plane design must meet certain DARPA criteria, including a top sustained flight speed of 300 to 400 knots, at least 75 percent hover efficiency, and the ability to carry a load of about 10,000 to 12,000 pounds.
According to DARPA, the current concept describes an unmanned aircraft with two large rear wings and two smaller front canards, or short "winglets," mounted near the plane's nose. A turboshaft engine will provide 3 megawatts of electrical power—the equivalent of an average commercial wind turbine.
And, fitted with ducted fans, each wing and canard will rotate to direct fan thrust as needed: toward the rear for forward flight, pointing down for hovering, and at different angles during transition.
"This is an extremely novel approach," Bagai said. "It will be very challenging to demonstrate, but it has the potential to move the technology needle the farthest and provide some of the greatest spinoff opportunities for other vertical flight and aviation products."
DARPA aims to perform VTOL X-Plane flight tests by 2018.
"This VTOL X-Plane won't be in volume production in the next few years but is important for the future capabilities it could enable," Bagai said. "Imagine electric aircraft that are more quiet, fuel-efficient, and adaptable and are capable of runway-independent operations. We want to open up a whole new design and mission spaces freed from prior constraints, and enable new VTOL aircraft systems and subsystems."