Photo by Stephen TrimbleI don't say this very often, but I'm impressed.
It doesn't look like much, I admit. If the airframe looks familiar, then you recognize the CL-10A Snowgoose parafoil. The inventor -- Canadian-based MMist -- has replaced the parachute with a three-bladed gyro-head.
The renamed Sherpa, displayed at the Cansec trade exhibition in Ottawa last week, joins a field of far more sophisticated competitors for the emerging cargo re-supply mission using unmanned aircraft. Its rivals include the Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-Max, Northrop Grumman Fire Scout, Boeing Unmanned Little Bird and Boeing YMQ-18A (formerly A160) Hummingbird.
The Sherpa's lack of sophistication is what impresses me. It's a vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft that lacks a true engine, drive system and gearbox. Yet, the Sherpa might haul a 325-pound load of cargo up to 100km, and return to base. Any of its competitors easily costs $5 million per aircraft, but MMist is offering to sell two Sherpa's for $1.3 million total.
The US Army has been skeptical that the costs and complexity of routinely re-supplying troops using unmanned aircraft could out-weigh the potential benefits. I wonder if the Sherpa might change their minds.
But it's not clear the Sherpa will be a contender for even the US Marine Corps' ongoing competition for an "immediate cargo UAS". The USMC wants to start deploying the aircraft in February. The Naval Research Laboratory is funding MMist's development of the Sherpa, but it won't be ready for a first flight until at least early 2010.