To park in a tight spot, it helps to have a Smart car. To fly into a tight spot, you need a smart plane – one capable of vertical takeoffs and landings. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has selected four aerospace and defense companies to each receive $17 million to design an unmanned vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft as part of DARPA’s X-Plane program.
Boeing Defense, Space & Security is one of the four companies selected. It won the funding by developing a prototype aircraft called the Phantom Swift. This flying demonstrator was designed and built at Boeing Phantom Works in less than 30 days using 3D printing. It has two large fans inside the fuselage for the vertical lift and smaller fans on the wingtips for additional lift and stability control while hovering.
Up to this point, vertical takeoff and landing aircraft have been variations of helicopters or fixed-wing planes, usually with wings that pivot for horizontal flying. The challenge is to design engines and propulsion systems that can operate at low speeds for vertical takeoff and hovering, then convert to high speed for cruising. Dan Newman, one of the leaders on the Boeing Phantom Works Advanced Vertical Lift team, described it best.
Proving these capabilities in a single aircraft has been the holy grail for tactical military aviation.
Boeing’s goal is to design an unmanned VTOL plane that can reached speeds of up to 460 knots. At some point in the future, DARPA wants the X-Plane to be manned.
This Phase I of the X-Plane program will last 22 months. At that point, DARPA will select the winner from the four designers – Boeing, Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., Karem Aircraft Inc. and Aurora Flight Sciences Corp. Phases II and III will be combined to build and demonstrate the X-Plane and is expected to take 47 months.
The X-Plane will initially be used to deliver equipment and troops quickly and safely to battlefields without runways. Eventually they’ll be converted for civilian tasks such as disaster rescues and remote deliveries. And someday they’ll be the model for some really cool RC aircrafts.