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Multicopter meets monster truck: The AT Transformer roadable VTOL aircraft

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January 10, 2014

The AT Black Knight Transformer

The AT Black Knight Transformer

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When someone mentions flying cars it conjures up images of a sporty little number that takes to the air like something out of the Jetsons. But what about one that’s a cross between a 4x4, an octocopter, and a Blackhawk helicopter? That’s what Advanced Tactics of El Segundo, California is seeing with its ambitions to produce a roadable VTOL aircraft capable of unmanned autonomous operations as a more flexible way to recover casualties, move supplies, and support special forces.

Medivac operations have revolutionized casualty evacuation. The ability to airlift wounded soldiers direct from the battlefield to a surgical unit within the "golden hour" between injury and treatment dramatically increases the chances of survival. The trouble is, helicopters can only land in nice, big open areas that can be miles from where they're needed.

That’s where the AT Black Knight Transformer comes in. It’s billed as the world’s first roadable vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft that’s capable of landing close to where it's needed, then driving the rest of the way. It’s seen as an economical aerial ambulance or cargo transporter to serve soldiers in the field with an interior volume comparable to a Blackhawk helicopter.

Black Knight Transformer operational concept design with streamlined aerodynamics and more...

When the AT Black Knight Transformer is operational, it will be a streamlined aircraft with turbo diesel engines capable of handling 1,000 lb (453 kg) or five passengers with a 250 nautical mile (463 km) range at 130 knots (241 km/h). On the ground, it will be able to haul 1,600 lb (726 kg) or eight passengers and manage 70 mph (over 110 km/h).

That, however, is in the future. For the moment, Advanced Tactics says that a full-scale technology demonstrator completed its first driving tests last month, and that the first flights are scheduled for early this year.

The AT Transformer vehicle technology is based on combining the capabilities of a multi-rotor helicopter with those of a motor car. According to the company, the idea is to produce a vehicle that is not only simple and robust with a highly modular design, but also one that is capable of autonomous, unmanned operation to avoid risking the life of a pilot. The engines are a direct drive connection to prop rotors with off-the-shelf components wherever possible set in a modular, field-replaceable configuration.

The design of the rotors is based on that of the multi-rotor helicopters that have become so popular with hobbyists.These provide a simple, stable configuration without the need for tail rotors or complex linkages with stability and control provided by a high-speed computerized feedback control system. In addition, the system allows for controlled engine-out flight in the event of an emergency.

On the ground, the engine modules fold against the body of the vehicle to provide a street-legal width and each module can be replaced by two people. Also, the payload bay can be swapped out to accommodate different missions. There’s an automotive suspension and drive train with large truck tires.

AT engineer, Rustom Jehangir, is standing next to the vehicle for scale

According to Advanced Tactics, the Black Knight was developed using an iterative prototype process starting with small electric machines and working on up the scale. In 2012, the company began work on the AT Panther Transformer, which is a smaller vehicle designed for special forces work and is sized to fit in the payload bay of a CV-22 Osprey.

Source: Advanced Tactics

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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25 Comments

Interesting but very loud, inefficient and a little issue of drag!! Maybe they should speak to www.vtoldynamics.com as they seem to have a much simpler solution with more flexibility...

Kestrela
10th January, 2014 @ 05:33 am PST

I think it has potential. I think it could also be a commercial cargo craft where one could fly it to a remote area and drive it to the location where it would be unloaded. It make getting the cargo there faster since one would not have to unload it to truck to deliver it to the destination.

Perhaps to silence the noise (or at least muffle it) would be to add mufflers to the engines?

BigGoofyGuy
10th January, 2014 @ 05:55 am PST

Oh yes you could, but it would still be eight engines screaming away and the nacelles needed to muffle that would be more weight and less cargo. I also wonder what its thermal signature would be with eight engines and exhausts. Anyhow, if the platform is VTOL, the need for wheels is greatly diminished so hence i feel the VTOL Dynamics option of hybrid electric and smaller footprint with greater forward flight speed is a better solution....Hey, its just my take on it.

Kestrela
10th January, 2014 @ 06:22 am PST

@Kestrela - I looked at the www.vtoldynamics.com site. It's still a bluesky project without a prototype and not a "roadable" vehicle. So it is not an apple/apple comparison.

Now taking the www.vtoldynamics.com system as what it is, a pure aircraft that is VTOL capable, it looks like it will be very usefull. That is of course if it ever makes it off the design table and into the real world.

VirtualGathis
10th January, 2014 @ 06:48 am PST

VirtualGathis - Yes it looks interesting, but they have flown a scale POC thats about 1.5m x1.5m and the site shows it flying so it may not be as "Bluesky" as we think, anyhow...I digress...ha ha

Kestrela
10th January, 2014 @ 08:36 am PST

" Maybe they should speak to www.vtoldynamics.com as they seem to have a much simpler solution with more flexibility..."

Bit short on wheels...

Keith Reeder
10th January, 2014 @ 02:19 pm PST

Keith Reeder - If its VTOL are wheels needed?

Kestrela
10th January, 2014 @ 02:55 pm PST

A sling load casualty carrier would appear more practical.

Slowburn
10th January, 2014 @ 08:44 pm PST

Keith Reeder - As i said, if its VTOL, if it was quieter, stealthier and less bulky, Why would it need wheels?

Kestrela
11th January, 2014 @ 12:12 am PST

because it would not be roadable without wheels.

Michael Wilson
11th January, 2014 @ 04:43 pm PST

Don't expect good returns from this guys and gals, all that suspension weight will eat into the payload capacity.

MattII
11th January, 2014 @ 11:00 pm PST

You cant land everywhere, you need wheels to drive into towns where the buildings are tall and the roads are not large like they are in America.

The idea is it flies close to the casualty then drives the last bit which it cannot fly due to high building or a forest or some other issue, it then drives away with the casualty and flies as soon as it can.

Seems a brilliant idea to me, if a little noisy and with a very bad thermal signature.

Marc Browne
12th January, 2014 @ 04:25 am PST

Interesting idea but the propeller noise will be far louder than the engines. Current turbo diesel engines may also have a power to weight problem. Just controlling the vibration of the engines will be a major challenge. Computer control of the rpm and variable pitch on the propellers may solve a lot of the problems. It would seem that small turbine engines might be better. It's also going to take a lot of fuel for eight engines running near full power to fly 250 nautical miles with a load. I have seen some amazing RC model multi-copters but stealth seems to be a weak point near the ground. It might just be simpler to remote control a regular helicopter. I hope they can work all the bugs out.

Bob
12th January, 2014 @ 02:05 pm PST

@Marc Browne

Exactly what is wrong with the current ASR method of a winch and 100 yards of cable? It's less than 1/10th the weight, and adds just as much versatility.

MattII
12th January, 2014 @ 03:34 pm PST

The idea is good , landing on water would be an added benefit and using

turbo diesel wankel engines would save a huge amount of weight and noise Wankel tec in Germany makes unit that would be usable at 30 % of the weight

Gideon Goudsmit
13th January, 2014 @ 01:26 am PST

@mattll

Whilst one might clear the immediate vicinity of hostile troops to enable a VTOL aircraft to come in quickly and collect casualties, there is no guarantee that you will not have snipers some distance off to whom a target forced to hover above the tree-line, or whatever, would be a sitting duck. on top of that, there is no tail rotor to catch in the branches of trees. Also, I assume that there is redundancy in the rotors, so if one did get damaged, the aircraft would still function to some extent. Not only that, the footprint would be far less than that of a rescue helicopter, thus opening up the landing site options.

Though having said all that, body bags are a real deterrent to warmongering politicians. So all this effort to save lives that would be lost otherwise and unmanned drone fighters and bombers with no lives to lose are not exactly conducive to world peace. You can almost hear the cash-registers ringing as they contribute to even greater arms industry profits and government debt.

Mel Tisdale
13th January, 2014 @ 03:54 am PST

This aircraftwill neverfly, becausethe total surface areaof the discs istoo low!

Germano Pecoraro
13th January, 2014 @ 03:57 am PST

The only problem is it would need 4x's the Hp and fuel as a Blackhawk making it impractical as it couldn't even carry the fuel, much less cargo.

All because small rotors are NOT, repeat, NOT eff. And why all practical VTOL craft have large rotors, basic physics one can't wish away.

jerryd
13th January, 2014 @ 09:00 am PST

Probably needs a bogied 8 wheel configuration for safety on the road.

BTW... that is what rail cars have been for well over 100 years.

bill

Lewis M. Dickens III
13th January, 2014 @ 09:22 am PST

"The trouble is, helicopters can only land in nice, big open areas that can be miles from where they're needed."

This made me laugh. I can attest to the fact that a helicopter does not need "...nice, big open areas..." to land.

Having flown UH-1Vs in medevac configuration, in the Pacific Northwest with significant forests etc... I never encountered a patient I couldn't get to within 200 metres in one direction or more often than not, we would run our medic down with the hoist and return to pick up the patient once stable.

Nevertheless, both UH-1V and MH-60K/L were put into very tight spots by myself and crew that were far from being nice, big or open, and then brought out again.

The only place I encountered that would make recovery doubtful was the Amazon jungle which was so dense, triple canopy and devoid of any clearings that the only hope would be a river extraction.

In any event I believe our patients deserve a human at the controls making decisions based on survivability of the machine with its precious cargo of wounded.

UAV craft are the future but not the answer for everything. I believe that we will still have need of a human for some tasks. I seriously doubt a UAV of similar size could land in some of the places I did only because of the dynamics of swaying branches, wires, antennas and the occasional flying mattress.

Oh well, "more power to them".

Bryan Haslett
13th January, 2014 @ 09:27 am PST

As is you have a poor performing helicopter matted with a poor performing ground vehicle carrying the extra weight it does not need to fulfill its mission.The only way this concept can work is to separate the two by having the helicopter part separate itself on touchdown, allowing the ground vehicle to continue its mission.

Matthew Jacobs
13th January, 2014 @ 11:53 am PST

@ Mel

"...body bags are a real deterrent to warmongering politicians."

Based on your reasoning, we should just get rid of all rescue aircraft, vehicles, pilots, medics... Heck we could even get rid of the hospitals, doctors, nurses and save a ton of money if high body bag count is the goal. Apparently its not you, your son or daughter who might be in need of medical care and would be deemed an appropriate high cost conflict deterrent.

Koolski
13th January, 2014 @ 12:13 pm PST

I agree that the www.vtoldynamics.com solution looks much more promising. If wheels are truly necessary (which I doubt, see Bryan Haslett's post above), a light weight solution more along the lines of a dune buggy seem far more practical. The primary means of mobility must be air mobility, not ground.

Koolski
13th January, 2014 @ 12:24 pm PST

The gist of most of the comments seem to be: "it isn't perfect so it is no good." It is a prototype for gosh sakes. If this concept proves out, it will have great potential not only in military but civilian fields. They have combined several existing technologies into a new format that will give it unique capabilities. Let them finish their project and see if it flies literally. Like the Osprey, it will not replace a technology like helicopters but compliment it by extending its potential usefulness. Good luck to them.

History Nut
13th January, 2014 @ 12:42 pm PST

A close look shows the props are not adjustable and the engines do have mufflers. The props are far louder than the engines, this thing could never be stealthy in fact it would probably cause deafness in the pilot. Just think of the noise of a light plane times eight; enemies could hear you coming miles away.

I think electric motors fed by a single turbine engine/generator with battery backup would work better and be simpler, lighter and far more powerful (but not much quieter).

Gas or diesel fueled engines have a hard time making quick, accurate, rpm changes; electric motors don't have that problem. And the battery need only be large enough to fly a reasonable distance for an emergency landing.

maak
8th February, 2014 @ 02:15 pm PST
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