|Darpa Moves a Step Closer to Its Flying Humvee|
Spencer Ackerman - Wired
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September 30, 2010
In the spring, the futurists at Darpa rethought troop transport. Instead of adding armor or changing the shape to deflect bomb blasts, the agency reasoned, why not let it leap into the sky at the first sign of danger or inconvenience? That’s exactly what Darpa’s “Transformer” project is supposed to be: a mashup of a helicopter, plane and armored truck. And it just came a step closer to reality.
AAI Corporation, a Maryland-based aerospace and defense company, won a $3.05 million contract with Darpa to see if it the technology behind the Transformer can, well, get off the ground, Aviation Week reports. Based on so-called “compound helicopter” technology that the company is developing with Carter Aviation Technologies, the gist is that AAI’s design for the Transformer envisions it to carry four soldiers on the road as a car, but the rotor blades on top allow it to take off vertically into the air. The car’s takeoff functions are supposed to be automated, so soldiers or marines don’t have to be aviators to get it off the ground.
That’s not all. As Danger Room emerita Sharon Weinberger reported in June, it releases DeLorean-like retractable wings, allowing it to fly faster than a conventional helicopter. “Envision a Humvee-like vehicle with wings that fold out from the side and attach just above the rear door,” AAI Vice President Steven Reid told Weinberger. Elements of three vehicles in one.
Darpa laid out the need for the Transformer in an April request for proposals. With the threat of improvised explosive devices on the rise, the defense agency wanted an “unprecedented capability to avoid traditional and asymmetrical threats while avoiding road obstructions.” That meant, basically, a flying car — one that could perform all manner of tasks, from “strike and raid, intervention, interdiction, insurgency/counterinsurgency, reconnaissance, medical evacuation and logistical supply.” Oh, and it has to be able to climb to 10,000 feet and travel 250 miles on a single tank of gas, meaning it’s got to be green.
For fuel efficiency, it uses a ducted fan in the back to propel the Transformer forward. According to Weinberger’s account of AAI’s design, the fuel supply is in its wings — which might be an enticing target for an insurgent hoisting a rocket-propelled grenade or a shoulder-mounted missile.
And speaking of: Darpa’s “desirable” design considerations only specify that the Transformer carry a load of 1000 pounds and be “capable of handling small arms fire.” What kind of armor should it have to protect the troops inside? A soldier in Afghanistan recently e-mailed to quip that as cool as flying cars are, he doesn’t have any desire to travel in a flying casket.
Armoring questions — and others, like what kind of gun the thing should carry — are preliminary for now. AAI’s $3 million from Darpa takes it through the first phase of the contract, which covers feasibility studies for the company’s design in terms of “propulsion, adaptable wing structures, lightweight materials, advanced flight control system, air/ground configuration designs and energy storage and distribution.”
That lasts until about fall 2011. If AAI passes its tests, it still won’t have to produce even a partial prototype until 2013. And this isn’t the first time Darpa’s tried to get defense companies to build a flying car, so even if AAI’s design hits a snag, it’s probably not going to be the last, either.