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DARPA selects Aurora to build VTOL demonstrator
The LightningStrike unmanned VTOL demonstrator © DARPA

DARPA selects Aurora to build VTOL demonstrator

Aurora Flight Sciences has announced that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded the company the prime contract for Phase 2 of the Agency’s Vertical Takeoff and Landing Experimental Plane (VTOL X-Plane) programme.

VTOL X-Plane seeks to exploit “cross-pollination between fixed-wing and rotary-wing technologies” to develop a technology demonstrator that could achieve a top sustained flight speed of 300-400kt; raise aircraft hover efficiency from 60% to at least 75%; present a more favorable cruise lift-to-drag ratio of at least 10, up from 5-6 and; carry a useful load of at least 40% of the vehicle’s projected gross weight of 10,000-12,000 pounds.

The Aurora team’s design for its unmanned aircraft, named LightningStrike, seeks to provide an approximately 50% increase in speed over existing VTOL aircraft designed for comparable mission applications. The technology demonstrator was designed in close collaboration with Rolls-Royce and Honeywell International.

The Aurora-led team intends to deliver a number of aviation milestones with the demonstration aircraft, including being the first aircraft designed to demonstrate:

• distributed hybrid-electric propulsion ducted fans,
• an innovative synchronous electric-drive system,
• both tilt-wing- and tilt-canard-based propulsion for vertical takeoff and landing,
• high efficiency in both hover and high-speed forward flight.

The aircraft design features a Rolls-Royce AE 1107C turboshaft engine that would power three Honeywell generators, and 24 ducted fans distributed on both the wings and canards. The aircraft’s electric distributed propulsion (EDP) system would consist of highly integrated, distributed ducted fans that, combined with the synchronous electric drive system, would enable the design’s hover efficiency and high-speed forward flight.

The DARPA technology demonstrator’s flight control system (FCS) builds on the heritage of Aurora’s Centaur and Orion optionally manned and unmanned aircraft platforms. The FCS system runs on a triplex-redundant design to ensure detection and correction of flight anomalies in both vertical and forward flight.

Pending successful completion of key programme milestones to be achieved in close collaboration with DARPA, Aurora plans to conduct the first flight tests of the technology demonstrator in the 2018 timeframe.

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