With its typical borderline-unrealistic wisdom, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is soliciting proposals for a completely new generation of aircraft that can take off and land vertically like a helicopter while offering the performance of an airplane in sustained forward flight. This new platform will be able to land in unprepared areas, move in all directions and hover in midair — all critical skills for transporting troops, conducting surveillance operations and performing special operations and search-and-rescue missions.
If this sounds like such a good idea that you're wondering why we haven't done it before, well, we did. It took 36 billion dollars and nearly 20 years and a whole bunch of crashes (many of them fatal), but we now have these:
They're V-22 Ospreys, and while we think they're totally cool, DARPA is already tired of them. Why? Apparently, they're just too darn slow, as well as being not nearly efficient enough:
"For the past 50 years, we have seen jets go higher and faster while VTOL aircraft speeds have flat-lined and designs have become increasingly complex," said Ashish Bagai, DARPA program manager. "To overcome this problem, DARPA has launched the VTOL X-Plane program to challenge industry and innovative engineers to concurrently push the envelope in four areas: speed, hover efficiency, cruise efficiency and useful load capacity."
Essentially, DARPA is looking for an aircraft that behaves like a jet (with a cruise speed of somewhere between 350 mph and 450 mph) until you want it to take off or land, at which point it behaves like a helicopter. And it's got to be elegant, DARPA says: "strapping rockets onto the back of a helicopter is not the type of approach we're looking for." That would be kinda cool to see, honestly, but we're also really liking these concept images that DARPA is tossing around. Here's another one:
That one on the bottom looks like it came straight out of just about every near-future sci-fi video game ever made, doesn't it? Except, DARPA is putting $130 million on the line to make it (or something very much like it) happen in 40 months or less.