DARPA steps up air vehicle activity

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As NASA faces deep cuts in aeronautics research funding, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is stepping up work on air vehicle-related programmes. Funds requested for fiscal year 2006 will support a reusable hypersonic demonstration and research into short take-off and landing technology.

Under plans submitted to US Congress for approval, the agency's aeronautics technology budget will increase from just under $50 million this year to around $95 million annually from FY2007, augmented by spending on advanced aerospace systems that will rise from just over $71 million this year to peak at more than $120 million in FY2008.

New activities proposed for funding in FY2006 include the Flare Aero Structures programme, which will explore unsteady aerodynamics during rapid pitch-up, or flare, manoeuvres that produce high lift coefficients for a short period to allow very short landings. This could lead to small/medium fixed-wing UAVs able to land in confined and unprepared areas, says DARPA.

The Macaw programme will develop a helicopter emulator by mounting a miniature pulse-detonation engine on a small UAV that would mimic the acoustic and thermal emulation of rotorcraft to draw fire from ground forces. The Nano-Flapping Air Vehicles project will develop a "bio-inspired" UAV with less than 50mm wingpan and 10g take-off weight.

DARPA has requested $56 million in FY2005-7 to ground-test a Mach 3-4+ expendable turbine engine, and flight-test a scramjet capable of M6.5-7+. The goal is a reusable turbine-based combined cycle engine for the hypersonic cruise vehicle to be developed under the agency's Falcon prompt global strike programme, with $25 million set aside in FY2007 for engine flight tests.

DARPA also plans to spend $86 million in FY2004-7 to demonstrate the Walrus very large airlift vehicle, a hybrid airship/aircraft. A more modest $11 million will be spent on the Peregrine UAV killer, an unmanned air vehicle with long endurance for loiter and high dash speed for intercept.

Under the advanced aeronautics demonstration programme, budgeted at $60 million in FY2005-7, DARPA plans to fund flight tests of two vertical take-off and landing concepts – Boeing's stopped-rotor X-50 Canard Rotor Wing and CarterCopters' Heliplane gyroplane – and begin work on an oblique flying-wing demonstrator. The Corm­orant programme, budgeted at $22 million, will complete preliminary design of a seaplane UAV.

GRAHAM WARWICK/WASHINGTON DC