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DARPA’s VTOL X-Plane features 24 electric fans for vertical takeoff, fast flying

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is cross-pollinating a helicopter and a plane for its vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) Experimental Plane program, otherwise known as the VTOL X-Plane. The Phase 2 contract for the program has been awarded to Aurora Flight Sciences.

The VTOL X-Plane Phase 2 design from Aurora is an unmanned aircraft with two long rear wings housing a total of 18 ducted fans and two shorter wings housing a total of six ducted fans mounted near the nose. The wings and fans would rotate as needed — for example, they would point backward for forward flight and downward for vertical lift.

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“The design envisions an aircraft that could fly fast and far, hover when needed and accomplish diverse missions without the need for prepared landing areas,” according to DARPA’s announcement. “While the technology demonstrator would be unmanned, the technologies that VTOL X-Plane intends to develop could apply equally well to manned aircraft.”

The VTOL X-Plane aims to perform flight tests in 2018. The program sought a design that could hit a top sustained flight speed of 300-400 knots; achieve aircraft hover efficiency of at least 75 percent; achieve a cruise lift-to-drag ratio to at least 10; and carry a load weighing at least 40 percent of the aircraft’s projected gross weight of 10,000-12,000 pounds. The design will also use electric power.

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