Radical helos, V/STOL vehicles and UAVs are on US Army's shopping list
Complexities of future warfare lead to purchase of wide variety of unconventional aircraft.
AAI's version of the flying humvee will convert from ground to air mode allowing SOF teams to avoid ground and air threats as needed.
SOF aviation experts are considering multiple configurations, including the tiltrotor technology of the Bell Boeing CV22 Osprey, in the quest to break through current rotorcraft limitations and increase their capabilities.
The tiltrotor's greater speed and distance add significantly to the SOF aircraft arsenal. X-model aircraft from Eurocopter, Piasecki and Sikorsky bring fresh ideas to newer rotorcraft capabilities.
Some design hopefuls today include technology from the Sikorsky X2 which will be rolled into the S97 Raider—a multiuse helicopter with a counter-rotating 8-bladed system, 6-seat cabin and a cruise speed exceeding 200 kts.
Other experimental designs for increased speed and noise reduction incorporate Piasecki's X49A—a highly modified UH60 with wings and modified tail antitorque/ thrust system allowing the aircraft to cruise at over 200 kts.
Eurocopter's X3 demonstrator promises increased speed and range with short wings and 2 propellers for forward thrust.
Additional DoD requirements for future vertical lift aircraft include optional piloted vehicles (OPVs) with beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) capability for missions that too hazardous for manned operation.
Lockheed Martin's entry in the Transformer program proposes using a ducted articulating fan system to lift an armored humvee for air mobility.
Lockheed/Kaman are already using a specially configured K-Max to deliver supplies in Afghanistan with a remotely piloted unmanned helicopter to US Marines forward operating bases (FOBs) in remote or dangerous areas.
This greatly reduces exposure of US forces reducing the need for dangerous convoys and exposure to IEDs.
The 4 companies receiving "concept trade and analysis" contracts from the Army Aviation Missile Research and Engineering Center (AMRDEC) in Huntsville AL were Boeing, Bell/Boeing, Sikorsky and AVX—a 2-year-old company based in Texas started by former Bell Helicopter engineers.
If all goes to plan the Army hopes to field the biggest of the 4 categories of JMR with a payload the size of a Lockheed C130 in 2025. Follow-on JMR aircraft would be medium versions to replace the UH60 in 2027–28 for reconnaissance, medevac, combat search-and-rescue.
They could carry up to 24 passengers. Finally, the light and heavy versions of the JMR are expected to be fielded in 2030 and 2035, respectively.
Transformer and nanotech
Two vehicles hosted on DARPA's website as "feasible designs" for another direction in SOF vertical lift are flying armored humvees. AAI and Lockheed submitted designs for DARPA's Transformer—a "flying car" of sorts based on a humvee.
SOF teams have always been outfitted with the latest technology which does not always go through the long and laborious government development and procurement process which can take 10–15 years.
Nano air vehicles like DARPA'S Hummingbird UAV can provide unobtrusive aerial intelligence over a small area, greatly increasing SOF team situational awareness.
Rapid prototype and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) procurements are possible with many SOF equipment ideas.
SOF teams would fly the vehicles in themselves and convert the flying vehicle into a road-ready humvee, complete the mission and exfiltrate from the operational area independently.
The Transformer designs include folding wings and ducted-fan-type lift systems which will allow the air/ground vehicle to avoid road obstructions and air threats as appropriate to accomplish the mission.
Specifications for the Transformer should allow the vehicle to travel 250 nm on land and air while carrying a 1000-lb payload.
DARPA expects the control system to be semiautonomous permitting a nonpilot to control the vehicle while transforming to VTOL flight without having a dedicated pilot for the vehicles.
As with the JMR program, design teams will conduct trade studies to "develop and mature propulsion systems, adaptable wing structures, advanced lightweight materials, the advanced flight control system, the air ground configuration designs, and energy distribution systems," according to DARPA's Waller, who is also Transformer program manager.
Additional DARPA aerial programs include nanotechnology that is already available. The Hummingbird UAV is capable of short-range surveillance and intelligence gathering.
This aerial device resembles an actual hummingbird and is the approximate size of the real thing which can be remotely controlled and flown through a building or over a fence and return without attracting too much attention.
As they say, knowledge is power and with this small nanoUAV, information is literally at one's fingertips.