DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has recently announced a major collaboration with leading companies in the aerospace industry to develop next-generation vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) unmanned aerial systems (UAS). The collaboration is part of the AdvaNced airCraft Infrastructure-Less Launch And RecoverY (ANCILLARY) program, which aims to revolutionize UAS operations by eliminating the need for large mechanical launchers and landing/recovery equipment.
Nine prominent companies, including AeroVironment, AVX Aircraft, Griffon Aerospace, Karem Aircraft, Leidos, Method Aeronautics, Northrop Grumman, Piasecki Aircraft, and Sikorsky, have been selected to participate in the program. Their task is to develop conceptual designs for VTOL UAS that meet the program’s objectives and requirements. The focus of these designs will be on Navy and Marine missions.
During the initial six-month Phase Ia, the selected companies will work on developing VTOL UAS designs tailored to meet the specific needs and challenges of Navy and Marine operations. Following this phase, competitive proposals will be submitted for more detailed design work on an X-plane, which will serve as a demonstration vehicle for advanced aircraft configurations and critical technologies.
The ultimate goal of the ANCILLARY program is to create a low-weight, large-payload, long-endurance VTOL uncrewed X-plane that can take off and land vertically like a helicopter but flies with the efficiency of a winged aircraft. The envisioned UAS will have the capability to operate from ship flight decks and small land locations in various weather conditions, without relying on traditional launch and recovery equipment.
One of the major challenges faced in this endeavor is the development of an integrated flight vehicle that combines VTOL capabilities, long endurance, and a large payload while also meeting requirements for shipboard storage and operations. Key focus areas include advanced VTOL aircraft configurations, innovative propulsion architectures, and advanced control effectors and theory.
The ANCILLARY program is expected to culminate in X-plane flight tests scheduled for early 2026. These flight tests will demonstrate the effectiveness and feasibility of the developed VTOL UAS designs in real-world scenarios.
The collaboration between DARPA and these leading aerospace companies represents a significant milestone in the advancement of VTOL technology and unmanned aviation. It showcases the collective efforts to push the boundaries of what is possible in terms of operational capabilities, efficiency, and payload capacity. The results of this collaboration have the potential to revolutionize military missions and open up new possibilities for the future of aerial operations.