DARPA's ARES program developing unmanned modular delivery aircraft


March 5, 2014

DARPA's ARES consists of a VTOL flight module capable of carrying several different types of detachable mission modules (Image: DARPA)

DARPA's ARES consists of a VTOL flight module capable of carrying several different types of detachable mission modules (Image: DARPA)

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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.

Source: DARPA

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

Yes but is this not just replacing the UH-1 with still more and less capable overall cargo delivery, which on an Electronic Warfare battlefield means the autopilot will probably deliver to Tehran. AAA also does not care if the Aircraft is truck or C17 sized and since most tanks are obsolete due to the Anti Tank missile, conversion into AAA for Anti Air and infantry support has become common practice, airspace in any significant theatre of action therefore is hot and not suitable for deploying this sort of device. Its no reason why not to develop robotic cargo delivery, just don't bet the farm on it working when you need it.


Politicians hate body-bags; not because it means that a life has been lost - that would reflect feelings of empathy with the family of the deceased - but because of what it might do for their votes at the next election.

So, the more warfare becomes 'unmanned', the less likely it is that the politicians will go the extra mile to avoid using war as means of dispute resolution. Ban all unmanned military vehicles, be they intended for army, navy or air force use, and then we might, just might, have a more peaceful world. Well, we can but try.

Mel Tisdale

It is like the UAV version of an SkyCrane / AirCrane in that it has the option of being able to carry different containers / loads beneath it.

I think it is good since it can deliver goods/supplies and retrieve the injured / personal without risking a pilot.


People are becomeing more educated now then in any other century on earth. To that effect the ideologys of countrys ,relgions, patriotism etc will be in decline, so robots are the only real hope of ensuring warfare contiunes on, granted poverty still sees militarys world wide getting most of there raw recruits from, officers do not get attracted to the military due to poverty.or these hardship environmental again robots are a countrys only hope of best defence, as advance robots in the future will beat the very best trained soilders, meaning mostly doom for the rest of us.

Oh by the way an osprey air to sea plane is what i wanted to talk about. Currently these osprey clones only fly, how about incorperating a uboat type of function, beach assults could be conducted rather then by air, evac or re supply is not just thena pradictble fly away senario. The sea could offer newer tactics,unpradictable tactics are a step ahead of whats know now and therfore give rise to a set of advantages over the enemy,whom ever that might be. Who is the enemy by the way...


Develop the unmanned VTOL but use automated helicopters until their ready. It's the same thing only helicopters already exist, and cost less to build and operate. Ultimately the 4 blade VTOL design shown will be most likely be quieter, less likely for catastrophic failure, less dangerous on landing, and have smaller square foot landing space required. Until that day arrives use helicopters.

Matt Fletcher

Automated systems better come with electromagnetic pulse (EMP) shielding, or an opponent with EMP capability (and you don't need a nuclear weapon) will quickly reduce our forces to pre-WW I status. If EMP disables all electronics, that means movement on foot (or horse/mule if you're fortunate), communication by human messengers carrying paper, no air support, and only the medical supplies in your emergency kit.

Pat Kelley

Tanks obsolete? The Israelis say the anti-tank guided missile is obsolete because of their Trophy vehicle defense system. Obviously, the truth is somewhere in between. A UAV is not inherently any more vulnerable than a manned aircraft, provided that there is some means to respond to emergency situations such as hostile fire. A big if? Helicopters can take advantage of Hover In Ground Effect. Unsure if ducted fan aircraft can or not. Or whether this is useful for the delivery mission. Ducted fans will move lesser volumes of air at higher velocities. So gravel, etc. will be propelled in greater volumes at higher speeds. Will that be a problem? Questions like these may not get answered until they get live tests under fire. Another way of looking at this proposal is that it's just an evolution of the K-MAX already in service in A-stan.


maybe that Amazon drone stunt was NO stunt after all. Imagine implications alone for rural delievery nationwide. & or to remote locales IE Amazon rainforest, deserts in Chile, etc. & for Rescue. Civilize this for the above markets alone. Awesome

Stephen Russell


If the defensive measure needed to protect the vehicle is more than the purchase cost of a missile, in this case £600,000 to a £60,000 missile one of which is needed to be sacrificed as decoy to defeat the Trophy one shot- so yes obsolete. Missiles just need to get cheaper, smarter, faster, more stealthy and like the RPG-30 integrate decoys into the warhead.


@ L1ma The Trophy vehicle defense system is gun based using dumb ammunition you can't make missiles cheap enough to counter it.

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