The US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) says it has designed, built and tested an “open source” engine in 13 months.
The AFRL says its Responsive Open Source Engine was tested for the first time on 6 November at its headquarters, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
The small jet engine was built by the Aerospace Systems Directorate and is the first turbine designed, assembled, and tested exclusively in-house, says AFRL.
The lab did not disclose the jet engines thrust rating, though the small turbine appears to be sized to fit into a small unmanned air vehicle (UAV) or cruise missile.
The AFRL developed the engine in-house to test the theory that it could create engines faster and cheaper than private companies.
“We decided the best way to make a low-cost, expendable engine was to separate the development costs from procurement costs,” said Frank Lieghley, Aerospace Systems Directorate Turbine Engine Division senior aerospace engineer and project manager.
The US Air Force (USAF) owns the design and intellectual property of the small engine. “Therefore, once the engine is tested and qualified, the Air Force can forego the typical and often slow development process, instead opening the production opportunity to lower-cost manufacturers better able to economically produce the smaller production runs needed for new Air Force platforms,” the service says.
The AFRL says high costs for developing small jet engines have held back the creation and use of new aircraft. The lab is aiming to cut the cost of developing such turbines by 75%.
“There’s no end to what might be done, but it’s all enabled by inexpensive production,” says Greg Bloch, Aerospace Systems Directorate Turbine Engine Division chief engineer. “It’s the ability to turn the economics of warfare around.”
The AFRL did not say how it was able to develop its Responsive Open Source Engine so quickly and for less money, though the process centered on empowering a small team of engineers to handle the entire process.
That method echoes a similar development effort by Pratt & Whitney’s (P&W) prototyping arm, GatorWorks. The company recently gave a team of about 15 hand-picked employees three performance specifications around which to develop a small turbine. By focusing only on thrust-rating, cost and size, the team was able to create a new engine core that was designed, built and tested in less than a year.
P&W and AFRL are responding to demand for faster and cheaper engine development from the USAF. The service envisions hordes of low-cost missiles and attritable UAVs that can overwhelm, dodge or outdistance Chinese and Russian air defence systems. It needs cheaper and higher performance engines to power that strategy.
The USAF's attritable concept comes from the word "attrition," meaning aircraft built cheaply and quickly enough to be affordably lost to attrition in combat.
The AFRL has said it plans to invest up to $725 million in jet turbine research and development between fiscal years 2018 and 2026, through its Advanced Turbine Technologies for Affordable Mission programme.
Beyond faster and cheaper development of engines, the AFRL also notes that giving its employees hands-on experience has other benefits.
“By teaching our people to do this themselves, we’re instilling in them a level of gravitas that will serve the Air Force well when we then apply that oversight to the traditional engine manufacturers,” says Bloch.
The AFRL says it is analysing data from its first engine test and plans to build a second version of the engine that will be smaller and lighter. The lab says with the tools and knowledge it gained from the first engine it should be able to finish the second engine in less time.