DARPA’s new chief pilot changes course

An encouraging blast from agency’s glorious past.


This is Rapid Eye’s bigger, slower brother. If you need instant, temporary intelligence, use the small, missile-launched drone. If you need the closest thing to a permanent eye in the sky, use Vulture.

Vulture stands for “Very high altitude, Ultraendurance, Loitering Theater Unmanned Reconnaissance Element.” It will be the closest thing to a geostationary satellite, but in low orbit. Weighing around 1000 lbs, Vulture will have a wingspan of between 300 and 500 ft. Capable of robotic refueling, and also of collecting power from its environment—maybe solar power, but the exact source is optional—Vulture will be able to loiter over a given location for more than 5 years.

Oblique flying wing

This concept has been around nearly for ever. The earliest mention we remember was published as early as the 1930s. But DARPA has done those pioneers more than one better. The fuselages on the oblique flying wing will pivot, so that the plane can fly in a swept configuration to minimize supersonic drag, yet convert to an unswept form for subsonic efficiency.

That should improve the craft’s range while minimizing fuel burn. Suggested missions for such a craft include surveillance, reconnaissance and transport, and even supersonic strikes. The DARPA initiative aims to produce an X-plane that will demonstrate the stability and control technologies required for such an aircraft.

A160 helicopter

A160 Hummingbird revolutionizes rotor technology.

Now nearing deployment, the Boeing A160 Humming­bird is a reasonably conventional-looking drone rotorcraft. With a range of 2500 nm and endurance of 24 hrs, this 35-ft vehicle will carry more than 300 lbs at speeds up to 140 kts and altitudes up to FL300. But this is a DARPA project. By definition, it has at least 1 spectacularly unconventional feature. In the Hummingbird’s case, it is the rotor.

On a conventional helicopter, the rotor spins at a fixed rpm. No so the A160. The Hummingbird’s rotor can be adjusted to provide the optimum rotation speed at different altitudes and speeds. This allows it to go further, fly higher, hover for longer periods and operate much more quietly than conventional aircraft. Count on this technology to appear in otherwise conventional helicopters for high-end business use in 10 years or so.

Phantom Ray

This is not a DARPA project any more—Boeing took it over 2 years ago. But it has been developed from the DARPA-sponsored X45, and—like the Predator UAV before it, and many other innovative products—it is a good example of what can emerge from the military funhouse into the real world of aviation.

It started as a joint US Air Force/Navy program to build an unmanned combat vehicle. (Another spinoff, Northrop Grumman’s X47 Pegasus, is now part of a Navy effort to build a drone that can operate from a carrier.) Its current configuration has grown up a bit. Phantom Ray is 36 ft long, with a wingspan of 50 ft.

It will fly at up to 533 kts and altitudes up to 40,000 ft. Boeing hopes to market the craft to the US military and possibly some foreign countries as well. First flight is scheduled for Dec 2010.


Urban Aeronautics of Israel has “flown” its AirMule, a VTOL UAV for cargo and medevac ops that foreshadows DARPA’s Trans­former flying car.

DARPA took over the X37 project in 2004. It had originated with NASA as a 120% enlargement of an earlier DARPA project—the X40. Boeing’s mysterious unmanned X37B is the result. It was designed originally to fly in the space shuttle cargo bay, but has since been reworked to ride on the nose of a Delta IV rocket.

The orbital test vehicle (OTV) was the subject of much speculation this April and May, when an Atlas launch vehicle put it into an elliptical orbit of 251 by 264 miles, inclined some 40° from the Equator. After the launch, the Air Force went silent about the X37B, refusing to explain what it was up to.

The Secretary of the Air Force states that the OTV program will focus on “risk reduction, experimentation, and operational concept development for reusable space vehicle technologies, in support of long-term developmental space objectives.” Independent observers believe the 29-ft-long, 4.9-ton spacecraft is a maneuverable spy craft. It is designed to remain in orbit for up to 270 days.


It isn’t exactly George Jetson’s flying car, but it will have some advantages that not even the famed cartoon series could offer—not least among them that this real-world airborne SUV should take flight well before 2062. DARPA’s solicitation calls for a 4-passenger vehicle no more than 30 ft long, 8.5 ft wide, and 9.5 ft high in ground configuration—roughly the size of 2 Hummers parked end-on.

Aside from riding down the highway at 60 mph, performance specs are roughly comparable to current rotorcraft—vertical takeoff with a 1000-lb payload to at least FL100, speeds of 150 mph, and 2 hrs endurance. DARPA suggests that the craft is likely to require some kind of “morphing wing” to meet all its design criteria.

Missions for the Transformer are likely to include delivering special ops teams, casualty transport and urban surveillance. The first Transformer is due to take off in 2015.


Same as the old DARPA? Given all the aviation-related programs carried over from earlier years, it would be easy to think so. After all, you just don’t build a new “DARPA-hard” aircraft in the year that Dugan has been at the controls. Continuity is not just desirable, it’s inevitable. And in the best possible sense, this really is the old DARPA.

But it is not the highly classified prototype show for high-tech widgets that the agency became under the pressures of the so-called war on terror and the real wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, it is becoming again the creative, freewheeling toy shop of earlier decades. This is not the fundamental difference it seems, so much as a change of emphasis.

DARPA built its reputation exploring the further reaches of R&D. UAVs, stealth aircraft, the Internet and a host of other wonders grew from this emphasis. But there are two more letters in the technology development process—T&E, for testing and evaluation.

T&E is the final step before new tech is shipped off to the field. In the post-Sep 11 period, Tether’s DARPA was tasked with hurrying the T&E so that Americans in combat would have the best tools that technology could offer, as soon as they could be delivered.

In a time when the war in Iraq is winding down and a new administration is setting priorities in Washington, the emphasis is swinging back to R&D. We see this too at NASA, whose civilian research often contributes to DARPA’s military programs. At the space agency, the testing, evaluation and deployment of technologies in manned missions is being replaced by R&D for unmanned probes and far-future missions to Mars and beyond.

Many onlookers—and likely many long-time DARPA personnel—will be glad to see this return to the priorities that shaped both agencies during their years of greatest renown. It will be extremely interesting to see where Dugan leads the unique institution she has inherited. It will be especially interesting for pilots, who can expect eventually to find some of DARPA’s latest innovations in their own aircraft.

Marvin Cetron is a forecaster/futurist and president of Forecasting Intl. His study for the Pentagon, Terror 2000, written in 1994, contained predictions of the subsequent course of terrorism.


1 | 2| 3