Robot Plane Can Transport Troops



[EDITOR'S NOTE: We're covering the Air Force Association convention this week in DC and we'll keep bringing you updates of cool tech from the show. I thought you'd be interested in the V-22 story, but I can see from the lack of comments it was ho-hum.

Here's another story from Bryant on a cool as heck drone the makers hope can be used to medivac or insert troops under fire. Sooo Alien 2...I love it. But I doubt we're at a point where a special operator would be willing to hitch a ride with a robot plane...]

Firm Building Man-carrying VTOL Drone

A Virginia-based company is hoping to test-fly a vertical take-off and landing drone before the end of this year that, ultimately, could do triple duty as strike vehicle, medevac or special ops insertion/extraction plane.

The Excalibur is currently being developed as an armed, tactical unmanned aerial vehicle by Aurora Flight Sciences of Manassas, Va., capable of carrying Hellfire anti-tank missiles and Viper Strike missiles. The Hellfire is currently mounted on Predator UAVs, while Viper Strike missiles are used for strikes on the Army's RQ-5B Hunter UAV, both fixed wing aircraft requiring traditional runway take-offs and landings.

Excalibur anticipates giving the Army -- if it chooses to follow through in developing the weapons system -- a way of delivering strikes with a VTOL-capable UAV, according to Tim Dawson-Townsend, Excalibur program manager.

The plane uses a turbine-electric hybrid propulsion system for VTOL capability and a turbine engine for horizontal flight, according to Excalibur's specs. Because the plane's flight control system would operate with a high level of autonomy, it would not be remotely controlled. The focus of the operators would be on mission planning, locating and engaging targets, the company says.

But with modifications, said Dawson-Townsend, the aircraft could carry a man. Ground forces could such a UAV to move an injured or wounded Soldier, while special operators could be dropped into our extracted from a location without the need of a pilot or even flying the vehicle themselves, he said.

According to the specs, the plane is also capable of traditional short take-offs and landings.

Patricia Woodside, public relations director for Aurora, said the Excalibur is under contract to the Army's Aviation Applied Technology Directorate. Current funding calls for a one-hour "proof of principal" flight before the end of 2008.

The Excalibur would be heavier than the Predator -- 2,900 lbs empty versus 1,130 -- but would be smaller. The final version, expected in 2012 if funding is appropriated, would have a wingspan of 21 feet, be 23 feet long and seven feet high. The Predator has a wingspan of 27 feet, is 27 feet long and just under seven feet high.

The version to be tested by the end of the year -- pictured above -- is smaller, weighing in empty at just 620 lbs, with a 10-foot wingspan, a length of 13 feet and just five feet high, according to the specs.

-- Bryant Jordan

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