July 19, 2024

DARPA Selects Four Competitors for High-Speed VTOL X-Plane Contract

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has chosen four companies to compete for a contract to design, build, and test an X-Plane demonstrator capable of high-speed cruise, hover, and VTOL (Vertical Takeoff and Landing) as part of its Speed and Runway Independent Technologies (SPRINT) project.

The SPRINT X-Plane will serve as a proof-of-concept technology demonstrator, and its flight test program aims to validate enabling technologies and integrated concepts that can be scaled to different sizes of military aircraft.

The requirements for the demonstrator include a minimum top speed of 400 knots (460 mph/740 km/h), altitude capability between 15,000-30,000 ft (4,500-9,000 m), and a payload capacity of at least 1,000 lb (454 kg). The aircraft should be scalable across a range of mission types and have a minimum flight duration of 90 minutes, covering at least 230 miles (370 km) of range.

Although the propulsion system is not specified, the aircraft must combine high-speed cruise with the ability to hover in challenging environments and launch or land from unprepared surfaces such as parking lots, highways, or fields.

Aurora Flight Sciences, Bell Textron, Northrop Grumman Aeronautic Systems, and Piasecki Aircraft Corporation are the four companies selected to share a funding of US$15 million for the development of their concepts under Phase 1A. These teams will undergo a selection process over the next few months, with the final winner being chosen to proceed with the construction of the X-Plane. The target for the first flight is in 2027, and the test program is expected to conclude in 2028.

Aurora Flight Sciences, a subsidiary of Boeing, has already proposed a blended wing body shape for their concept. The sketch provided shows the integration of a fan-based VTOL system within the wings and body, protected by retractable covers.

The development of the X-Plane under the SPRINT project represents a significant advancement in aircraft technology. Successful demonstration and validation of the required capabilities will open up new possibilities for future military aircraft, with improved speed, maneuverability, and versatility. The ability to operate in austere environments and take off and land on unprepared surfaces will enhance military operations in remote or challenging terrains.

DARPA’s selection of these four companies demonstrates their expertise and capabilities in aircraft design and engineering. The competition among these companies will drive innovation and bring forth the most promising concepts for the high-speed VTOL X-Plane. The funding provided by DARPA will support the development of these concepts, ultimately leading to the realization of a game-changing aircraft.

The X-Plane’s design and performance will be closely scrutinized throughout the flight test program, as DARPA aims to validate the integrated technologies and assess their viability for application in larger military aircraft. The scalability requirement ensures that the technologies developed for the X-Plane can be adapted to various mission types and aircraft sizes, further enhancing their value and potential impact.

The successful development and deployment of the high-speed VTOL X-Plane will mark a significant milestone in aviation technology, pushing the boundaries of what is currently possible and paving the way for future advancements in military aircraft. As the competition progresses and the teams refine their concepts, the anticipation for the first flight of the X-Plane in 2027 continues to build.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it