Tough technological and cost hurdles to be overcome, with final demonstrator selection set for February 2004

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the US Army have mapped out the transition of the Unmanned Combat Armed Rotorcraft (UCAR) from concept demonstration to development of an operational system.

But the programme must clear a series of technological and cost hurdles over the next eight years.

"We're a little luckier than the air force UCAV [unmanned air combat vehicle] in that they ended up with a nicely executed programme, but without the commitment and money up front. We've the commitment and resources up front to take the programme to a point where we can transition into acquisition, and we've started it with the expectation of developing a system that will go into acquisition," says Don Woodbury, DARPA UCAR programme manager.

While the USAF/DARPA X-45 UCAV will mature to an operational system by 2008, the lack of a transition plan for the US Navy/DARPA UCAV-N programme has effectively stalled that demonstration.

The army is committed to spending $500 million on UCAR - five times the current UCAV-N flight demonstration budget - maturing the rotorcraft to the start of system development and demonstration.

Woodbury says the UCAR must first overcome four technological challenges - survivability; being capable of operating autonomously at low level below 500ft (150m); ability to collaborate with other manned and unmanned airborne assets; and being able to identify targets at range. The vertical take-off and landing vehicle must also be affordable, with a planned $4-8 million unit cost, or 20-40% that of the Boeing Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche.

DARPA and the army plan to reduce the four competitors in the initial concept design and trade-off phase to two by the end of May, 2003. There will follow nine months of preliminary design before final selection of a single demonstrator in February 2004. The first of two planned UCAR-A vehicles will fly in early 2006, when the army will decide whether to proceed to the final phase of maturing a missionised B demonstrator.

Boeing, Lockheed Martin with Bell, Northrop Grumman, and Sikorsky teamed with Raytheon are competing. "We're not measuring what they have done against the notion of what they should have done. We're instead taking a concept and assessing its operational value," says Woodbury.

Source: Flight International