What was once a Pentagon research program to demonstrate a flying jeep has been given a new name and a new direction. Formerly called Transformer, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s (Darpa) rechristened Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded Systems (ARES) program will now fly a modular, unmanned vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) delivery system.
While a setback for flying-car advocates, it is not unusual for Darpa to stop or rejig a program when the original idea is not working out. In this case, the original idea was to develop a highly automated military vehicle able to fly four people from ship to shore then drive on and off road, taking to the air when necessary to avoid ambushes or roadside bombs.
Under the original Transformer program, a Lockheed Martin/Piasecki Aircraft team was selected over AAI in 2012 to build a prototype fly/drive vehicle. Their winning design combined a manned vehicle with an unmanned ducted-fan flight module that could detach and operate independently.
Darpa reviewed the program early in 2013 and stopped work on the ground-vehicle portion to focus on demonstrating the flight module as a remotely piloted aircraft. “They took a relook at the flying-car concept,” says Kevin Renshaw, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works program manager. “They were not getting a great response [from the services], but they liked the modular VTOL UAV part.”
ARES is seen as a follow-on to the Lockheed/Kaman K-Max unmanned helicopter now being used operationally in Afghanistan to resupply U.S. Marine Corps forward operating bases. Based on the K-Max’s success, the Marine Corps has plans for a cargo UAV program of record and the Army and Navy also have shown interest in unmanned resupply.
In January, Lockheed and Piasecki began work under Phase 3 of the ARES program, which will culminate in flight tests of the ducted-fan cargo UAV. First flight is planned for mid-2015, says Renshaw. Piasecki is building the flight module and its rotating machinery; Lockheed is team lead and responsible for the flight-control software.
For the prototype, the team has stayed with the flight module design developed for the Transformer. The tailless air vehicle has a pair of tilting ducted fans attached to a central wing section and outboard wing panels that tilt with the fans and fold against the ducts when stowed. The detachable payload module fits under the center section, between tall landing skids.