Helicopters are an invaluable military resource for transporting supplies, carrying out surveillance and reconnaissance, and evacuating casualties from rugged terrain. Unfortunately, they are also a finite resource. That's why DARPA is looking to share the load with the Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES) concept, a compact, high-speed and highly-automated delivery system with vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities.
The ARES program grew out of DARPA's Transformer (TX) program that kicked off in 2009 with the goal of demonstrating a tactical flying car that could be driven on the ground like an SUV before rapidly switching to aircraft mode with VTOL capabilities.
Last year, DARPA switched focus, ditching the requirement for carrying personnel to focus on an unmanned system that would be able to bypass ground threats and deliver cargo and other essential services to difficult to reach areas. The result is the ARES program, which is currently in its third and final phase with a Lockheed Martin Skunk Works/Piasecki Aircraft team responsible for building a prototype aircraft that is an evolution of a design originally submitted for the TX program.
It consists of VTOL flight module with twin tilting ducted fans that would provide it with hovering and landing capabilities that would allow it to land in areas half that typically needed by similarly sized helicopters, including rugged terrain and aboard ships. The ducted fans rotate, allowing the craft to rapidly switch to a cruising flight mode with speeds comparable to a small aircraft.
The flight module would have its own power system, fuel, digital flight controls and remote command-and-control interfaces, allowing the craft to operate as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). It could be controlled using apps running on a smartphone or ruggedized computer, however, there is the option to pursue semi-autonomous flight systems and user interfaces for optionally manned or controlled flight in the future.
The flight module would be able to carry several different types of detachable modules that would vary on the task at hand, such as cargo pickup and delivery, casualty extraction and airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). These modules would weigh up to 3,000 lb (1,360 kg), which is more than 40 percent of the aircraft's take-off gross weight.
"Many missions require dedicated vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) assets, but most ground units don’t have their own helicopters," said Ashish Bagai, DARPA program manager. "ARES would make organic and versatile VTOL capability available to many more individual units. Our goal is to provide flexible, terrain-independent transportation that avoids ground-based threats, in turn supporting expedited, cost-effective operations and improving the likelihood of mission success."
ARES is just one of the unmanned aerial cargo delivery systems being pursued by the US military. In 2012, the US Navy announced its five-year Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) program that aimed to develop "sensors and control technologies for robotic vertical take-off and landing aircraft," while an unmanned Kaman K-MAX helicopter made its first cargo drops in Afghanistan in 2011.
Kevin Renshaw, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works program manager, told Aviation Week that first flight for the ARES prototype is planned for mid-2015.