Saturday, August 29, 2009

Beyond Predator: The Vultures are Circling

For unmanned drones, the sky is not the limit

Flight researchers aim high for next generation of UAVs

Courtesy of Lockheed Martin Corp.
Courtesy of Aurora Flight Sciences
Courtesy of Boeing Co.

An unmanned aerial vehicle that would dwarf the ones known as Predator and Reaper — and could keep an eye on an unsuspecting enemy for years, rather than hours — is under development by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

DARPA calls the aerial vehicle the Vulture, and major aviation players such as Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. are working on the project, which researchers admit poses significant challenges.

What the Vulture’s role would be and what type of payload it would carry have not been specified, but it obviously could be used for surveillance, intelligence and as a relay for communications, said DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker.

Derek Bye, Lockheed’s Vulture program manager, said he envisions the Vulture as a propeller-driven vehicle that looks like a flying wing spanning 200 to 500 feet with solar cells on top. The power could be stored in fuel cells.

The Vulture would probably fly at 60,000 feet and higher to stay above the weather, Bye said. The biggest issue would be operating it at higher latitudes in winter because of the sun’s low angle, which would affect how the sunlight reaches the solar cells. The vehicle has to be able to fly at night and in bad weather, Walker said.

The Vulture must require no maintenance while it’s airborne, and there is the question of how you power an unmanned aerial vehicle for years, Walker said.

Vulture is just one of the many projects that DARPA has on the drawing board. Most of the agency’s ideas take about four years to develop, but the more advanced programs take longer, Walker said.

"This is like the Holy Grail of all airplanes," said Bye. "What we are looking at is long-term surveillance at a very low cost, and this is a fundamentally different approach."

The savings on maintenance would be one of the big advantages, Bye said.

DARPA officials compare the Vulture to a satellite, but say it would offer more flexibility because it would be easier to move.

"As for what that does, it moves us towards kind of a satellite paradigm," said Walker. "Even things like Global Hawk (UAVs) don’t have an endurance that approaches years; [their endurance is] a matter of hours."

Vulture’s development comes at a time when UAVs such as the Predator and Reaper are playing an increasing role in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A recent Washington Post article quoted an Air Force source as saying the service was going to train more UAV pilots this year than fighter and bomber pilots.

But the Vulture is a completely different bird from what is flying in the war zones. And, according to experts, putting a weapon on something that stays in the air for five years wouldn’t be practical.

DARPA developments

Apart from the Vulture, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is working on a smorgasbord of ideas that would make a Hollywood sci-fi movie maker salivate. They include:

  • A plane that becomes a submarine to carry eight troops to an enemy’s shores without detection. DARPA issued a solicitation outlining the submersible aircraft’s requirements for any company interested in developing it.

DARPA wants it to be able to fly 1,000 nautical miles, operate like a boat on the surface for 200 nautical miles and maneuver like a submarine in shallow depths for 24 nautical miles. The agency sees this machine as a way to reduce the risks of landing troops. It would have to be able to float offshore for up to three days.

  • Power Swim, a device that propels swimmers twice as fast through the water as swim fins. It mimics the motions made by a seabird to boost a swimmer’s speed, range and endurance.

"Power Swim has been going on for some time. It has been tested with users in the water and we have been very pleased," said DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker. "It is well under way certainly to the point where we have a working model."

  • Fracture Putty, a substance to treat broken bones. It would create what DARPA dubs a "bone-like internal structure" that would degrade as the injured person’s bone regenerates.

"The healing process is a very long process. We are trying to develop this material to provide support to the bones as they heal and allow the injured soldier to get back on his feet," Walker said.

  • DARPA is funding research by the University of California, Berkeley, to develop a cyborg beetle that would be controlled by electrodes. Such a beetle was flown by university researchers earlier this year.
  • Disc Rotor, another aviation project in the early stages of development. The disc would be on top of aircraft and have retractable rotor blades enabling the aircraft to take off, hover and land like a chopper, but fly like an airplane without having to tilt its wings like a V-22 Osprey.

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