The race to build the world’s first flying military jeep just moved a
step closer to the finish line. The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has selected two companies to proceed
with the next stage of its Transformer, known as TX.
A fully automated
four-person vehicle that can drive like a car and then take off and fly
like an aircraft to avoid roadside bombs. Lockheed Martin and AAI
Corp., a unit of Textron Systems, are currently in negotiations with
DARPA for the first stage of the Transformer project, several industry
sources told Popular Mechanics at a robotics conference here in Denver.
DARPA has not announced the official winners yet.
It’s unclear how many companies competed for the DARPA project, but the
competition brought together an unusual mix of large defense companies
with smaller aviation firms vying to build the vertical takeoff and
landing craft. Perhaps most surprising—and for some competitors
galling— is that DARPA selected a rotor-based aircraft for one of the
two winning submissions. At an industry day held earlier this year,
DARPA officials had initially said they weren’t interested in a
traditional rotary-wing aircraft, though they might consider a vehicle
if the rotor was shrouded.
AAI’s winning concept does not have a shrouded rotor, but it is also
far from being a traditional helicopter. The company, which produces
the Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle, is basing its proposal in part on
the slowed-rotor/compound concept, a technology that uses rotor blades
heavily weighted in the tips, or high inertia. The rotor provides lift
on takeoff, and then as it gains speed, the rotor slows down and the
wings provide lift.
Lockheed Martin has declined to detail any aspect of its submission,
but those familiar with the Phantom Works project speculated that it
might combine aspects of the company’s Joint Tactical Light Vehicle, a
follow-on to the Humvee, with a ducted fan propulsion system that it
would use to fly.
The two companies are still a ways away from building flying Humvees;
the first stage of the DARPA project is merely working on conceptual
designs. The total funding available for Transformer is about $40