At the AUVSI trade show last week, we spent most of our time wandering around looking for robots that weren't just slightly different flavors of quadrotors, or little airplanes with cameras on them. Things weren't as wacky and awesome as they have been in past years (possibly because the market is maturing a bit), but we still managed to dig up some very cool stuff. And one of the very coolest things was Lockheed Martin's Transformer TX, a DARPA project that'll result in an unmanned payload transport system that can deliver just about anything. Even a car, with you in it.
Originally, DARPA's Transformer program was going to be an actual flying car, like this:
It evolved from a helicopter-ish design into a vehicle with a pair of swiveling ducted fans, like this:
So that would have been fun, but Lockheed Martin Skunk Works had the clever idea of decoupling the car from the flying system entirely, and turning the VTOL bit on top into an autonomous robotic delivery system, like this:
The idea is that you can throw just about anything pod-sized underneath the UAV, including (potentially) a vehicle, as Lockheed's models show:
The best part is that Lockheed, along with partner Piasacki Aircraft, is actually going to build a flying Transformer TX. They're not going to do the car bit, at least not yet, but they'll put together a full-size version of the UAV along with one cargo pod and have it flying by 2015. The final test will involve a mock pod delivery mission; you might be thinking to yourself that you'd love to see a pod pick up mission, but Lockheed quite rightly points out that trying to engineer that level of precision would be a ridiculous amount of effort when odds are you'll just have a soldier there to hook it up anyway.
The production version of Transformer will boast a 250 mile range and a top speed of 200 knots. Thanks to the ducted fans, it'll be both safer and more efficient than a helicopter, and will be able to land in an area half the size that a helicopter with a similar payload would require. It's also small enough that you can stick it on a trailer a drive it down a single lane road, making transportation relatively easy.
Ultimately, Transformer will be autonomous enough that flying off with a manned vehicle underneath may actually happen. We may also see surveillance and strike packages, although at least initially, the focus will be on cargo. We'll be checking back in a year or two to see this thing get off the ground.
[ Lockheed Martin ]
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.