A plane that laughs at short runways, a helicopter that sneers at slow airspeeds, a Jeep that jumps over IEDs, a robot that fears nothing as it ferries cargo and wounded soldiers in and out of battle zones—all these machines in one small, convenient package—that's what the military calls "Darpa hard."
As for Darpa itself—the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—it used to call the experimental vehicle the Transformer, in a nod to the television series about reconfigurable robots. Now, though, the agency has rechristened the vehicle Ares, after the Roman god of war and a tongue-twisting acronym (Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded Systems).
A tip o' the hat goes to Graham Warwick, a British-trained aeronautical engineer who got the story last week for Ares, the defense blog of Aviation Week, where he's managing editor. Another hat tip goes to our own Evan Ackerman, who blogged about this back in August (without video but with plenty of great artist's impressions of the machine).
Here's that video:
Reason for the name-change: Darpa lost interest in the idea of jeep that could fly; instead it preferred to focus on an autonomous flyer that could carry a Jeep, or a medevac capsule, or a box of stuff--anything that can fit between the vehicle's splayed legs. After strapping on the load, the ducted, two-propeller, autonomous craft would hold its props in the horizontal plane for liftoff, then rotate them to or nearly to the horizontal plane for forward flight. The tricky part is in melding all elements of the craft into a single, seamless system of flight control, which involves manipulating the variable-pitch rotors and pointing the exhaust stream in the appropriate direction.
The contractors are Piasecki Aircraft, known for its helicopter expertise, and Lockheed Martin. The first test flight is due sometime next year. Possible customers include the U.S. Army, Marine Corps. and Special Forces.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.