DARPA unveils details of Transformer TX flying car

a rifle company has altogether and would be commanded by an officer at least equal in rank to the company commander,” Page writes. Every Marine aircraft at the moment is piloted by a wings-on-chest officer.

The TX would be different, though. DARPA specifies that it should be capable of completely unmanned flight operations, much like the robotic supply choppers also being examined by the Marines right now. While the TX would generally fly with personnel aboard, they would not be highly trained officer-class pilots: any lance-corporal with the right tick in his personnel file would be able to pilot one, just as he might drive a Humvee.

In most cases, making a flight would call for nothing more demanding than selecting a destination from a preprogrammed menu or keying in some coordinates, though DARPA says that a “range of operation from fully autonomous to being able to have the operator make flight steering commands in real time” is “desirable.”

How is all this to be achieved? DARPA has some suggestions:

Technologies of interest may include: hybrid electric drive, advanced batteries, adaptive wing structures, ducted fan propulsion systems, advanced lightweight heavy fuel engines, lightweight materials, advanced sensors, and flight controls for stable transition from vertical to horizontal flight.

It is also specified that “contained propulsion (no exposed rotors) is highly recommended” and that “disk loading should be minimized to maximize VTOL operational capability.”


This would seem to point to large, low-disc-loaded ducted fans as the VTOL propulsion, perhaps swiveling tilt-rotor-style to provide thrust for forward flight or using Venetian-blind slats as in the Israeli AirMule vehicle (see Flying Ambulance: UAV Will Extract Wounded Soldiers from the Battlefield,” 12 March 2010 HSNW; and “Israeli Ducted-fan Sky-jeep in Flight Trials,” 13 January 2010 HSNW).

A flying Humvee — or a flying Prius?

Page notes that DARPA also seems to be looking at a Toyota Prius-esque electrical hybrid transmission between the prime mover — gas turbine or trendy low-maintenance heavy fuel engine — and the actual whirlers and wheels. This could help with making the machine quiet, and the supplementary “advanced batteries” might deliver the peak power needed for VTOL or hover, topping themselves up at times of lower demand such as forward flight or ground driving.


Alternatively a “jump takeoff” system such as that on the Carter Copter might use inertial energy stored in spinning fans rather than electricity held in batteries to make a vertical liftoff — or both, or something else altogether might be employed.

Transformer TX is an ambitious project, but DARPA wants it realized quickly — and they do not expect to spend much money either (relative, that is, to other U.S. military flight-related projects). A prototype intended to show the feasibility of a later production model should be in ground and flight tests no later than 2015, and cost no more than $43 million plus some smaller, $1 million sums paid to develop necessary subsystem technologies.

Page notes that costs are to be reduced by the fact that test flights needn’t be carried out with people aboard:

To mitigate the costs associated with flight certification within this program, the prototype will not be required to be flown with human occupants. Instead, automated flight within a military controlled airspace where executable scripts and/or remote control is permitted will be the recommended approach to demonstrate flight performance. It is expected that VTOL, transition between vertical and forward flight, cruise flight, ground travel, and vehicle reconfiguration will be demonstrated … Full mission cycle demonstration is not expected, but representative critical transition elements of operation (e.g., VTOL, cruise, ground travel) will be expected with an extrapolation of fuel/energy consumption to show the ability to meet the four representative mission cycles.

It may well be the case that like DARPA’s most famous past success (the Internet), the Transformer TX would be even more significant in the civilian world than in the military, Page writes. Unlike existing personal aircraft such as light planes, Terrafugia Transitions, motorized parachutes, etc., it would be pretty much a Jetsons or Blade Runner flying car.