Terrafugia, Aurora Flight Sciences, Metis Design Take Wing in $65M DARPA Program to Design Flying Humvee

OK, a flying Humvee doesn’t sound like a very green vehicle—but the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency isn’t interested in green.

DARPA is interested in improving the safety and lethality of U.S. troops in dangerous environments. And it is willing to pay handsomely for it—to the tune of a five-year, $65 million research program to develop what it calls a “Transformer” vehicle that works like a Humvee on land, but can also fly.

No, this isn’t an Onion article. The goal is to be able to carry four troops and their gear (1,000 pounds) over a distance of 280 miles on one tank of fuel, by any combination of air and land, the agency says. The vehicle must be able to take off and land vertically—meaning it will fly like a cross between a helicopter and a plane (see drawing above). And, oh yeah, it has to be piloted by an average Marine Corps soldier without any flight experience. In other words, it needs to fly mostly by itself.

If it works—a big if, indeed—such a vehicle could swoop over obstacles or tough terrain, and potentially could help troops avoid ambushes and improvised explosive devices in roads. It could also be used for evacuation or rescue missions where it would be very useful to scan the situation from the air and then drop in at the right spot—in urban combat operations, say—while maintaining some mobility on the ground after landing. (You can read more details and speculation in this Popular Mechanics article.)

A key participant in the DARPA program is Woburn, MA-based Terrafugia. You might know it as the “flying car” company, though the firm much prefers the drier term “roadable aircraft.” Terrafugia was founded in 2006 by five MIT-educated pilots, and has been developing a light sport plane, called the Transition, that can be driven on roads and is slated for testing and production next year. The company declined to comment on its involvement in the DARPA program beyond the information in its press release this week. But it’s clear that Terrafugia’s expertise in combining flying and driving vehicles is valuable here.

Indeed, Terrafugia is “one of the few companies that has experience blending the disparate ground vehicle and aircraft requirements into a single functional concept,” says Stephen Waller, the program manager for the DARPA project, in an e-mail. “This is the primary challenge to successfully develop the Transformer vehicle.”

DARPA "Transformer" vehicle (concept art: Lockheed Martin)

Terrafugia is one of several companies participating in the program—and a few have connections to the Boston area. Virginia-based aerospace firm Aurora Flight Sciences, which has a research and development office in Cambridge, MA, and technical consulting firm Metis Design, based in Cambridge, both have received small-business research grants to work on the project. For its part, Terrafugia is the largest subcontractor to AAI, a Maryland-based aerospace and defense company owned by Textron, a multi-industry conglomerate headquartered in Rhode Island. AAI is one of the two main contractors on the DARPA project; defense tech giant Lockheed Martin is the other (see drawing on left for Lockheed’s competing design concept).

Meanwhile, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh has been awarded $988,000 to develop an autonomous control system for the vehicle. Sanjiv Singh, a professor in CMU’s Robotics Institute, is leading that effort. And rocket engine company Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne is working on the engine and propulsion technology for the craft. Carter Aviation Technologies, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, ThinGap, and two other Textron companies (Bell Helicopter and Textron Marine & Land Systems) round out the field of participants.

Overall, the effort has some similarities to a previous DARPA research program called “morphing aircraft structures.” That program, which began in the early 2000s, explored materials and designs that would enable aircraft to alter their wing structures (such as shape and surface area) to fly more efficiently at different speeds or for different mission purposes. Development work in that area is continuing, but the new Transformer project presents a fundamentally different challenge.

“The vehicle must be robust enough to meet the Marine’s ground use requirements yet light and aerodynamic enough to fly,” Waller says. “The systems engineering required to bring aircraft components such as propulsors, lifting surfaces, and control schemes into a vehicle that is rugged enough to perform like an SUV off-road, is the very essence of DARPA hard.”

The first phase of the Transformer program will last about 12 months. It will involve designing and testing propulsion systems, adaptable wing structures, advanced lightweight materials, flight control systems, different configurations of the vehicle for air/ground use, and energy storage and distribution systems (including batteries and ultracapacitors). It’s not clear yet what the vehicle’s leading propulsion method will be, but the program’s website lists “hybrid electric drive ducted fan propulsion system” as a technical area to be explored.

I contacted several outside aerospace experts to get more details on the challenges of designing such a vehicle. I’ll update this story if I hear anything compelling.

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