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Aurora to build test drone for DARPA project



Alex Holloway



A piece for the U.S. military's future arsenal might be built in Columbus. 


In March, Aurora Flight Sciences announced that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded it an $89 million contract for the second phase of the agency's Vertical Takeoff and Landing Experimental Plane -- or VTOL X-Plane -- program. Aurora, which is headquartered in Virginia, beat out Boeing, Sikorsky (owned by Lockheed Martin) and Karem Aircraft, for its design, according to Greg Stewart, director of development for Aurora's Columbus facility.  


"The other entries I would say were a little more conventional than what Aurora proposed," Stewart said. "This one is a bit more out there, although not out there in the way that it's an unfeasible thing. It's not a pie-in-the-sky type of thing and there are some definite benefits to the type of design we proposed." 


Aurora calls the experimental unmanned aircraft "LightningStrike."  


The proposed aircraft features a Rolls-Royce engine that powers three Honeywell generators and 24 ducted fans distributed along the wings and canards. 


Stewart said the company has been working on the VTOL X-Plane project for about two years. He said the project began to morph into what's now the LightningStrike about a year ago. 


The drone's dimensions haven't been finalized, but Stewart said it should weigh between 10,000 and 12,000 pounds. Aurora is also still determining where the aircraft might be built. Stewart said it's too early to know how many jobs might be associated with the drone's construction. 


Aurora plans to conduct the first flight tests of LightningStrike in 2018, pending successful completion of program milestones. 


LightningStrike is currently designed as an unmanned drone, but Stewart said the design could accommodate a pilot if needed. The change would likely lead to a slightly larger version of the aircraft. 


"The structure could accommodate manned flight as easily as unmanned," Stewart said. "This particular design is for an unmanned vehicle and that was what we felt best fit the requirements that DARPA sent out. But there's no reason you couldn't build a manned one that looks very much the same." 


The VTOL X-Plane project seeks to develop an aircraft that can reach top sustained flight speeds of 300 to 400 knots, increase aircraft hover efficiency, present a favorable lift-to-drag ratio, and carry payload of at least 40 percent of the vehicle's projected gross weight of 10,000-12,000 pounds. 


Stewart said much of what Aurora has proposed with the LightningStrike design has only recently become feasible because of advances in electric power. 


"Batteries have been the greatest single area that electric power has improved," Stewart said. "With that comes improvement in more efficient motors and being able to pack more power in a smaller package than you could before." 


Aurora has experience to draw on -- Stewart said the company has designed VTOL aircraft, such as its Goldeneye and Excalibur lines, for about 20 years. 


"Aurora is proud to support DARPA on what we all hope to be a truly historic breakthrough in aviation technology," Aurora chairman and CEO John Langford said in a statement. "If successful, the VTOL X-Plane's radically improved flight capabilities could lead to revolutionary advancement of the U.S. military's future missions capabilities."




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