Being developed for the US Army's future vertical lift programme, the V-280 is due to make its maiden sortie before year-end.

But, says Vince Tobin, Bell's vice-president of military business, the manufacturer is now considering possible future applications for the tiltrotor.

"With the help of the US government, we hope to look at flying the V-280 autonomously, hopefully in the next year or so," he says.

Tobin argues that the application of fly-by-wire controls on the Valor and the development of its flight-control laws make a transition to autonomous flight relatively straightforward.

"While it's not trivial, it is less significant than having to do everything from scratch," he says. "That gives us a leg up."

Although the V-280 is being produced under a narrowly defined US Department of Defense contract for the army's joint multi-role technology demonstrator effort (JMR-TD), Tobin says the aircraft could subsequently serve as a flying testbed.

"We intend to make the government programme office aware that once [JMR-TD tests] are completed they have a relatively low-cost flying laboratory available."

As well as autonomous flight technologies, this could also be used to trial the integration of weapons on to the platform, he says.

He expects some government funding would be available as a "risk reduction" exercise.