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DARPA VTOL Experimental Plane (X-Plane) LightningStrike Enters Phase 2: Pushing Technology Needle The Farthest

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Budding from the cross pollination of fixed and rotary wing technologies, the LightningStrike, a VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) aircraft, is set to grow from a concept to a prototype.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on Thursday announced that contractor winner Aurora Flight Sciences will nurture the LightningStrike in Phase 2 of the VTOL's life.

The concept for the LightningStrike VTOL was the result of collaboration between Aurora Flight Sciences, Rolls-Royce PLC and Honeywell International Inc.

The LightningStrike is a part of DARPA's VTOL X-Plane (Vertical Takeoff and Landing Experimental Plane) program. Though it isn't the first of its kind, the LightningStrike's technology is unprecedented.

"If successful, VTOL X-Plane's radically improved flight capabilities could lead to revolutionary advancement of the U.S. military's future mission capabilities," said [pdf] John Langford, chairman and CEO of Aurora. "We're honored to have been selected by DARPA to build and flight test the demonstrator aircraft."

Lightning In A Bottle

VTOLs have been in development for more than six decades. Beyond the MV-22 Osprey, researchers and engineers have failed to build a breed of aircraft that could stand next to or step ahead of the helicopter.

Aurora Flight Sciences has been commissioned to develop the LightningStrike concept into an aircraft that can top out at a speed somewhere between 300 and 400 knots, 345 mph to 460 mph.

The Virginia-based firm must also raise the VTOL's hover efficiency from 60 percent to at least 75 percent and double its cruise-to-drag ratio between 5 and 6. The firm must also improve the concept's load-bearing capacity so that it supports a payload of at least 40 percent of the VTOL's project weight of 10k to 12k pounds.

DARPA would like for the LightningStrike to best the MV-22 Osprey, which tops out at 351 mph.

It'll use the same Rolls-Royce AE 1107C turboshaft engine as the Osprey, but the LightningStrike will be more fuel-efficient.

And along with the increased fuel efficiency the VTOL's hybrid electric engine will deliver, Langford explained the potential for a stealthier aircraft.

"Instead of taking two big powerful thrusters, we have 24 of them," said Langford. "We distribute that same energy over 24 fans ... has less blast, less heat, is quieter and less disruptive, which means it can get into places that the V-22 can't. Part of the idea of this is to make it more practical."

Preying On The Osprey

While Aurora Flight Sciences is working to turn 3D renders into a working prototype, Ashish Bagai, DARPA program manager, tempered expectations of LightningStrike. The Osprey and its supporters have nothing to worry about, at least not in the next few years.

The VTOL won't make it to "volume production in the next few years," but actualizing on the concept is important for the future technologies the aircraft could facilitate, according to Bagai.

"Imagine electric aircraft that are more quiet, fuel-efficient and adaptable and are capable of runway-independent operations," said Bagai. "We want to open up whole new design and mission spaces freed from prior constraints, and enable new VTOL aircraft systems and subsystems."

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