The Next Step For VTOL Aircraft

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The aerospace industry continues to be a leading sector utilizing new manufacturing technology and innovative design concepts. The industries commitment to new innovative ideas opens up new possibilities to create more advanced and efficient aircraft than ever before imagined.  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has just awarded Aurora Flight Sciences the prime contract for Phase 2 of DARPA’s Vertical Takeoff and Landing Experimental Plant (VTOL X-Plane) program.

Aurora will be tasked to develop a concept aircraft that will be able to achieve a top sustained flight speed of about 350 – 450mph and increasing the hover efficiency from 60% to at least 75%.  This will be an unmanned aircraft which Aurora dubbed ‘LightningStrike’  and the goal will be to create a faster and more efficient VTOL aircraft. VTOL’s are particularly important for military operations because of the flexibility they offer over traditional aircraft. Having the ability to take off and land nearly anywhere without a full runway is a vital application for missions taking place around the world.

“Aurora is proud to support DARPA on what we all hope to be a truly historic breakthrough in aviation technology,” Dr. John Langford, chairman and CEO of Aurora stated. He continued “If successful, VTOL X-Plane’s radically improved flight capabilities could lead to revolutionary advancement of the U.S. military’s future mission capabilities. We’re honored to have been selected by DARPA to build and flight test the demonstrator aircraft.”

Designed in close collaboration with Aurora’s team members, along with Rolls-Royce PLC and Honeywell International Inc., it will allow for a fantastic merging of minds to help produce this revolutionary new aircraft. It will make use of distributed hybrid-electric propulsion ducted fans, a synchronous electric-drive system along with a host of other new technology to deliver fuel efficient high-speed forward flight and hover capabilities.

“The Aurora team’s goal is to help redefine the future of vertical flight,” a statement made by Mark Wilson, COO of Rolls-Royce LibertyWorks, “Rolls-Royce LibertyWorks is proud to contribute both proven components and innovative new technologies in turbo-electric distributed propulsion to this exciting program.”

In the statement above, Mark Wilson mentioned using both proven components and innovative new technologies. It was not clear whether or not Wilson was referring to the new systems on the aircraft, or the manufacturing process itself. The aerospace industry has become increasingly interested in additive manufacturing and for good reason. To achieve such a high level of fuel efficiency it will be incredibly important to keep the weight of the aircraft as low as possible. Additive manufacturing allows manufacturers to create lighter components while still maintaining the structural integrity of the aircraft.

It would be surprising if Aurora didn’t investigate the benefits of additive manufacturing on this new project. Achieving vertical lift is not an easy feat, and 3D printing offers a fantastic way to keep the weight down. Not only is this a prime project to utilize 3D printing, it is a great example of how collaboration can foster innovation. These three incredibly capable companies coming together will surly produce fantastic results.

Aurora predicts that their first flight tests will take place around 2018. However, it will all depend on if they can reach key program milestones which DARPA laid out for the project.

It will be extremely exciting to see how this project will move along. The technological advancements and innovative manufacturing processes involved is sure to have a lasting impact on aerospace technology and production methods.