- By Zach RosenbergZach Rosenberg is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist.
Airplanes are great, but they can’t hover without crashing. And helicopters are great, but they can’t fly very fast. Attempts to tie the two together, such as the Harrier jump jet, V-22 tiltrotor or Sikorsky X-2 are aerodynamic compromises that end up doing neither especially well.
Aircraft need air moving fast over the wing to create enough lift to support the plane’s weight, and since the wings are fixed in position it needs to keep moving. Helicopter rotors work like wings, they’re spinning fast enough to generate enough lift to let the helicopter hover, but the rotor needs to be pointed upwards, otherwise nothing is generating lift.
But the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency aims to change that, and they’ve just started handing out money for a new X-plane program. DARPA wants the airplane to fly at least 350mph — faster than most small general aviation planes, but not as fast as an airliner — while carrying up to 12,000 pounds. It’s harder than it might seem. To do so, you need to step away from conventional airplanes and helicopters.
Aurora Flight Sciences, a relatively small Virginia-based company, just got $14 million to build a scale model prototype of their system, whatever it is. Aurora is known for its innovation, doing unusual things with experimental one-offs or low-production drones; their most prominent programs to date are large experimental airplanes meant to stay airborne for days or years at a time. Just what they are pitching to DARPA we don’t yet know — the company did not immediately return phone calls. But it may look a lot like some other recently-introduced entries, and nothing like what’s in the skies today.
One proposal is Boeing’s Phantom Swift, which uses a winged fan-in-body configuration, with two rotors inside the fuselage of the aircraft itself and two ducted fans on either wing to hover. The ducted fans tilt forwards to act as propellers, and the internal rotors help take the load off so they don’t have to be especially powerful. For forward flight the ducted fans tilt forward to become propellers, while the wings — and crucially, the fuselage — can generate lift. Other companies are using some or all of the same ideas.
"We’re looking at doing this in an elegant fashion, we’re not looking for brute force," DARPA program manager Ashish Bagai said when the program was announced. "There is a lot of technology now available to directly address shortcomings" of previous designs, he added.
The first phase of the contract involves a few competitors, flying scale models and making their best pitches for the real thing. The second phase, starting in 2015, will downselect to a single competitor to build a full-scale airplane.
Nobody is expecting this to happen quickly — X-planes are built to test ideas, not work operationally — but the potential benefits to aviation are huge.
John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.| The Complex |
Cara Parks is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Prior to that she was the World editor at the Huffington Post. She is a graduate of Bard College and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and has written for The New Republic, Interview, Radar, and Publishers Weekly, among others.| The List |
Super-Copters, Spy Planes, and a Publicist: Here’s How The U.S. Military Will Help With Typhoon ReliefDan Lamothe
Dan Lamothe is an award-winning military journalist and war correspondent. He has written for Marine Corps Times and the Military Times newspaper chain since 2008, traveling the world and writing extensively about the Afghanistan war both from Washington and the war zone. He also has reported from Norway, Spain, Germany, the Republic of Georgia and while underway with the U.S. Navy. Among his scoops, Lamothe reported exclusively in 2010 that the Marine Corps had recommended that Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer receive the Medal of Honor. This year, he was part of a team of journalists that exposed senior Marine Corps leaders' questionable involvement in legal cases, and then covering it up. A Pentagon investigation is underway in those cases.| The Complex |