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Air Force, Army to Develop Heavy VTOL Drones
  • 25 Dec 2023 04:11 AM
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Air Force, Army to Develop Heavy VTOL Drones

By Dan Gettinger, Managing Editor
Vertiflite, Jan/Feb 2024


The US Air Force and Army awarded contracts to multiple firms to develop heavy-lift vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) drones. As they eye future mobility and resupply needs, the Air Force and Army contracts aim to fill a critical gap in the capabilities of existing uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS).

These contracts follow the award by the US Marine Corps to SURVICE Engineering in April 2023 to manufacturer and deliver 21 TRV-150C Tactical Resupply Unmanned Aircraft Systems (TRUAS) drones (see “SURVICE for Service,” Vertiflite, Sept/Oct 2023); an additional 28 systems were approved in December. This was the US military’s first production order for a cargo UAS, with a potential of up to 180 TRV-150C systems, each of which can carry 150-lb (68-kg) of payload.

The Army’s Heavy Vertical Takeoff and Landing (HVTOL) program is seeking a VTOL uncrewed aircraft for resupply missions with a lift capability 10 times that of currently planned VTOL systems. According to the Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) solicitation the Army issued on June 12, 2023, the program seeks an aircraft capable of lifting loads that weigh at least 800 lb (362 kg), with the goal being loads weighing 1,400 lb (635 kg). Additionally, the aircraft should be able to carry that load at least 100 miles (160 km).

In early October, the Army awarded contracts to Piasecki Aircraft Corp. (PiAC) and a team comprised of Kaman Air Vehicles and Near Earth Autonomy Inc. The Army is hoping to conduct an initial test of the aircraft in early-to-mid 2024, in which it will evaluate the aircraft’s ability to lift a 500-lb (225-kg) load. Following this, the Army intends to award a sequential Phase II award to demonstrate progress on the 800–1,400-lb load goal.

Kaman Air Vehicles, a division of Kaman Corporation, and Near Earth will develop a system derived from Kaman’s KARGO UAV. In an Oct. 4 press release, Kaman said that Near Earth will serve as the prime contractor of the project and provide the autonomy system. The two companies previously collaborated on developing the autonomous capabilities of Kaman’s KARGO (see “Cargo Carrier in a Can,” Vertiflite, Nov/Dec 2021). As of press time, Piasecki had not revealed what UAS it was developing for the Army project.

Piasecki ARES

In November, Piasecki secured a second contract to develop a heavy-lift VTOL drone. AFWERX, the Air Force’s innovation unit, awarded Piasecki a multi-year, $37M contract for work on the Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES) UAS and hydrogen propulsion technologies. The contract, which AFWERX awarded under its Strategic Funding Increase (STRATFI) program, will support Piasecki’s efforts to integrate a fly-by-wire flight control system for the ARES and conduct flight testing over the next year, PiAC told Vertiflite.

The ARES, a multi-mission tilt duct VTOL UAS, has its roots in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA’s) Transformer (TX) program, which the agency launched in 2009 to develop a “flying Humvee” (see “The Shape of Things to Come, Part 2,” Vertiflite, Sept/Oct 2014). In 2012, DARPA selected a team comprised of Piasecki and Lockheed to develop an aircraft for the program, by then rechristened as ARES (see “Lift on Demand,” Vertiflite, Sept/Oct 2016).

Following DARPA’s cancellation of the ARES program in May 2019, Piasecki continued to work on the aircraft with its own funds and support from US Air Force SBIR projects. In 2022, PiAC was competitively selected under the STRAFI program, with funding from both the Air Force and Army.

In addition to continued work on ARES, the new STRATFI contract award will enable Piasecki to develop its hydrogen fuel cell propulsion technology. Piasecki is working with ZeroAvia on hydrogen fuel cell technology, which PiAC will apply to its forthcoming PA-890 compound helicopter and other VTOL aircraft. In May 2023, Piasecki re-opened the Heliplex facility in Pennsylvania as a center for the development of nextgeneration VTOL aircraft and associated technologies, such as hydrogen propulsion (“Piasecki Relaunches the Heliplex,” Vertiflite, July/Aug 2023).

The recipients of both the Army and Air Force contracts are companies with deep experience with uncrewed VTOL, setting up 2024 as a critical year for the development of next-generation UAS.

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