Human beings have only been able to fly for about 112 years. About 50 years into that, we got pretty good at it, using tried-and-true methods of propulsion and lift to get fixed wing aircraft with jet engines going pretty much anywhere we wanted them to. But now, as flying machines get more and more ubiquitous, we’re coming up with some pretty crazy ways of getting things off the ground.
Take DARPA’s newest X-plane (or experimental aircraft), for example. When Aurora Flight Sciences won the contract to design a vertical take off and landing (VTOL) plane in March, their concept was like nothing we’d seen before. The LightningStrike has a bullet-shaped fuselage and two boxy wings, which hold a bank of 24 ducted fans that can rotate to both push the plane vertically off of the ground, and then propel it forward at more than 400 miles per hour. DARPA is putting a lot into VTOL planes because of their usefulness in all kinds of military and civilian operations — fixed-wing flight aircraft can fly faster and further than helicopters can, but they usually require long runways to take off and land. VTOL planes eliminate that. The initial concept video for the Lightning Strike showed Aurora’s unique design, but until today we didn’t know if the thing would actually fly.
While we haven’t seen a full scale model in action, Aurora’s scale model works just fine.
The 325-pound model flown today is only 20 percent of the size and weight of the full plane. Aurora says their full-scale model should be ready sometime in the next two years. They 3D-printed some of the fuselage parts, which saved weight, time, and money when putting together the model plane.
“The successful subscale aircraft flight was an important and exciting step for Aurora and our customer,” Tom Clancy, Aurora’s chief technology officer, said in a press release. “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.”
DARPA gave Aurora the contract earlier this year after a year-long design competition. They’re looking for a plane with a specific set of specs: it has to be able to fly between 345-460 miles per hour, raise hover efficiency from previous VTOL designs from 60 percent to at least 75 percent, present a cruise lift-to-drag ratio (a score calculated through flight tests, equations, and a wind tunnel) of at least 10, and be able to carry a payload equal to 40 percent of the its total weight. So far, it looks like they’re on the right track.