Apr 19, 2016 | By Tess

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been an active agency in the U.S. Department of Defense for nearly 60 years and has been responsible for the development of many new military technologies. In recent years, one of the agency’s focuses has been on developing a VTOL X-Plane, an unmanned vehicle capable of both fast forward flight and vertical takeoff and hovering. To develop the best design for the plane, DARPA selected a number of aircraft manufacturers to compete in designing the plane, a process which took a number of years. Just over a month ago, on March 3rd, 2016, DARPA announced that Aurora Flight Sciences, one of the competitors, was being awarded the coveted funding (a hefty $89.4 million) to develop their innovative LightningStrike aircraft concept.

Now, Aurora Flight Sciences has announced that it has successfully flown a subscale vehicle demonstrator (SVD) or prototype of its VTOL X-Plane, which was made with the help of 3D printing technologies. The groundbreaking flight, which took place recently at an unspecified U.S. military facility and can be witnessed in the video below, reportedly met a crucial DARPA risk reduction requirement, and successfully demonstrated a series of takeoff, hover, and landing procedures.

"The successful subscale aircraft flight was an important and exciting step for Aurora and our customer," said Tom Clancy, Aurora's chief technology officer.  "Our design's distributed electric propulsion system involves breaking new ground with a flight control system requiring a complex set of control effectors.  This first flight is an important, initial confirmation that both the flight controls and aerodynamic design are aligning with our design predictions.”

The SVD for Aurora’s LightningStrike aircraft is a 20% scale model of the final vehicle and weighs roughly 325 pounds (estimates put the expected weight of the full plane model at 10,000-12,000 lbs). The aircraft prototype, which may look a bit strange to those accustomed to seeing regular planes, uses a combination of fixed wing technology, to make it go forward, and rotary wing technology, to make it capable of vertical takeoff. Additionally, it is equipped with wings and a canard designed with a hybrid structure of carbon fiber and 3D printed FDM plastic materials, which have allowed for the plane to have both complex structures and an aerodynamic surface, all while keeping weight down.

The development of the VTOL X-Plane will continue through DARPA and Aurora’s Phase II contract, during which the engineers behind the groundbreaking aircraft will work on increasing the vehicle’s hover efficiency to make it at least 60-75% more efficient than existing VTOL aircraft, and on achieving a flight speed of 300kt to 400kt (roughly 556 km/h to 741 km/h). Both DARPA and Aurora are hoping to be testing flights of the full aircraft by as soon as 2018.

Aurora’s innovative LightningStrike design marks the first aircraft in history to properly demonstrate how a distributed hybrid-electric propulsion using a synchronous electric-drive system could work. As Ashish Bagai, DARPA program manager says, “Just when we thought it had all been done before, the Aurora team found room for invention-truly new elements of engineering and technology that show enormous promise for demonstration on actual flight vehicles. It will be very challenging to demonstrate, but it has the potential to move the technology needle the farthest and provide some of the greatest spin-off opportunities for other vertical flight and aviation products.”



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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