On Thursday of this week, a small company by the name of Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation beat out big name aviation establishment companies like Sikorsky and Boeing to be awarded a DARPA contract to build a prototype, remotely operated, vertical take off and landing (VTOL) aircraft.
Aircraft that can take off and land vertically are ultimately more flexible than their traditional counterparts. They don’t need runways to operate so can be deployed to regions where no significant infrastructure exists to support them. Like attack helicopters, they can loiter below surrounding terrain, pop up to fire a weapon, then drop back down again. Outside the military realm, the cargo, medical, exploration and logistical uses are obvious.
Why Not VTOL?
Traditionally, VTOL aircraft like the V-22 Osprey and AV-8 Harrier have had a number of issues plague their usage. They tend to be shorter range, more limited in performance, and, in the case of the V-22, fraught with reliability and safety issues. DARPA has been trying to address those problems and come up with a new generation of VTOL aircraft. The Aurora Flight Sciences Lightning Strike is a major step down that path.
What are Some of the Innovations of Lightning Strike?
The biggest difference between Lightning Strike and its predecessors in the VTOL world is that while earlier aircraft had only one or two engines, this new aircraft will have 24 – and they are embedded within a tilting wing. If a V-22 loses one of its two engines while in vertical flight, the aircraft is going down. Losing one out of 24 will hardly be noticed. Additionally, each engine is much more compact with significantly smaller blades, allowing the aircraft to operate in more cramped areas, as well as closer to trees and brush. The smaller footprint ducted-fan engines also allow the aircraft to fly faster – and they are electric, powered by a central fuel-powered engine, and can push the Lightning Strike to 400 knots. This hybrid configuration is much more efficient, addressing a traditional shortcoming of VTOL aircraft: range. They are also capable of being controlled individually to allow for even greater efficiency, safety and much improved agility. Lastly, it is significantly easier to remove and replace a single electric motor in the event of damage or failure. Repairing damage to something like a turbo-prop, tilt-rotor engine is a much more involved process.
Aurora Flight Sciences hopes to have a prototype flying by 2018. Like many advances made for the military, many of the innovations on Lightning Strike will likely find their way into commercial aviation. With all the advances being made via this project and others, aviation looks to be in for an exciting few years.
Image credit: Aurora Flight Sciences, Boeing