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DARPA’s ARES Developing Autonomous VTOL Capabilities

No sooner is an autonomous convoy tested than the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) updates its plans to develop a modular transportation system designed around a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) flight module operating as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES) aims to do just that.

“ARES would make organic and versatile VTOL capability available to many more individual units.”

ARES is an offshoot of the Transformer (TX) program that was unveiled by DARPA in 2009. The TX program sought to develop a prototype system for demonstration that would provide flexible, terrain-independent transportation for small ground units. The prototype system would be able conduct logistics, personnel transport, and tactical support missions for small ground units. Out of that program, the ARES design concept was selected for additional development in late 2013.

ARES

The Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES) would be built around a variety of different modules such as cargo pickup and delivery, casualty extraction, and airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). Lockheed Martin rendering

Experience in mountainous Afghanistan has shown the dangers of ground transportation. Ambushes and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have posed challenges for surface transport. The average combat outpost in Afghanistan requires 100,000 pounds of supplies a week, with high elevation and the rough road conditions conspiring to make resupply a logistical nightmare. Though helicopters are one solution, the demand far outstrips the supply. “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.

“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.”

The VTOL flight module would be at the center of ARES. The module, operating as a UAV, would have its own self-contained power system, fuel, digital flight controls, and remote command-and-control-interfaces. Efficient hovering and landing capabilities would be provided by twin tilting ducted fans. These ducted fans would provide landing capabilities in a compact configuration, in landing zones half the size of those needed by similarly sized helicopters. “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,” said Bagai. The module could also be rapidly converted to high-speed cruise flight, similar to the MV-22 Osprey, of up to 200 knots.

Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES),

The Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES) is designed to avoid the dangers of ground transportation in places such as Afghanistan, where ambushes and IEDs have created logistical problems. Lockheed Martin rendering

As envisioned by DARPA, the ARES system would be the solution. Traveling between its home base and field operations, ARES would be capable of delivering and receiving an array of detachable mission modules. Each mission module would be designed for a specific purpose, such as cargo pickup and delivery, casualty extraction, and airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). “ARES would make organic and versatile VTOL capability available to many more individual units,” said Bagai. The flight module would have a load capacity of up to 3,000 pounds, more than 40 percent of the gross takeoff weight of the aircraft.

The flight module would have a load capacity of up to 3,000 pounds, more than 40 percent the gross takeoff weight of the aircraft.

Modules would be directed in flight by units using mobile phone apps or ruggedized tablets. ARES would initially be unmanned, with the hope that the system would approach semi-autonomy, with user interfaces for optionally manned or controlled flight.

Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES),

The ability of the Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES) to land in tight places, thanks to it twin tilting ducted fans, would allow it to operate aboard ships. Lockheed Martin rendering

Lockheed Martin Skunk Works is serving as the lead vehicle designer and system integration performer for ARES. ARES is currently in its third and final phase.

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Steven Hoarn is the Editor/Photo Editor for Defense Media Network. He is a graduate of...