How you could develop US military tech — The Blueprint

We caught up with the man behind the U.S. military’s latest engineering development, a tiny vertical-takeoff aircraft.
Alice Cooke
DARPA's ANCILLARY.
DARPA's ANCILLARY.

DARPA 

  • ANCILLARY will develop and demonstrate the technologies required for a VTOL aircraft
  • The main challenges are takeoff weight, payload needs, mission endurance objectives, and propulsion
  • The technology has potential commercial uses too, including air taxis

This story first appeared in our subscriber-only weekly Blueprint newsletter. Receive exclusive interviews and analyses like this, direct to your inbox every Sunday, by subscribing to IE+.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has a new program called the AdvaNced airCraft Infrastructure-Less Launch And RecoverY X-Plane (ANCILLARY).

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It aims to develop and demonstrate the technologies required for the production of a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL), low-weight, high-payload, long-endurance aircraft.

ANCILLARY wants to build a plane that can launch from ship flight decks and small austere land locations in adverse weather, without the launch and recovery equipment that’s typically needed for the existing systems.

By removing the current reliance on infrastructure, it would minimize personnel, costs, and vulnerability during sensitive operations.

To achieve this, ANCILLARY is using a multidisciplinary approach that it hopes will bring together developments in advanced control theory, aerodynamic modeling, and advanced propulsion, to solve a combination of challenging design objectives.

To find out how exactly this all came about, what the aircraft might be used for, and how to get involved in the development of military tech, we caught up with Steve Komadina. Komandina is Program Manager at Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), part of Arizona State University, and one of the guys behind its latest development.

How you could develop US military tech — The Blueprint
Steve Komandina for DARPA ANCILLARY
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Interesting Engineering: What prompted ANCILLARY in the first place?

Steve Komadina: The proposed DARPA ANCILLARY unmanned air system (UAS) X-plane is intended for the U.S. Navy. Current U.S. Navy aircraft use mechanical launchers and landing/recovery systems (such as the RQ-21) that are large and burdensome.

Our goal is to not require any of this mechanical infrastructure for takeoff and landing of the aircraft. Helicopter-type vehicles can take off and land vertically, but lack efficiency for long missions.

Other small UAS have limited sensor payloads or short endurance. The goal of ANCILLARY is to combine vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL), with relatively large payloads, long range, and long endurance. These integrated technologies, if proven out, would allow the U.S. Navy to develop a military vehicle that has enhanced Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, and Targeting (ISRT) capabilities.

What stage is the program at now?

The program is just getting started. There is a proposers' day on September 20, 2022 at DARPA and this will be followed by a solicitation for proposals. Contract awards are expected in early 2023. Completion of the program is expected in 2027.

What does the program aim to achieve?

The objectives of the program are to develop a small UAS that takes off vertically, like a helicopter, but flies most of its mission like an efficient winged aircraft. An X-plane is a technology demonstrator that matures technologies that need to be proven in flight.

What challenges are you facing with its development?

One of the three major challenges is developing an integrated UAS that meets the takeoff weight, payload needs, and mission endurance objectives all at the same time. Another challenge is the propulsion system, which needs to have enough power to lift the UAS vertically and be efficient in forward flight where the need for power is much lower. These two divergent requirements are challenging to meet simultaneously.

What implications does ANCILLARY have going forward?

We plan to have multiple companies on contract initially, and through various phases of the program, pare down to the most promising concept for flight testing.

How long do you think it might take for it to be put to widespread military use?

This technology may find its way into military vehicles in the 2030 timeframe.

Is there any scope for using it in industries beyond the military?

Yes. Many commercial companies, such as those developing air taxis, are interested in maturing these technologies.

What advice do you have for someone wanting to engineer something for the U.S. military?

It is good to understand the technology needs of the user. In this case, it is the U.S. Navy. Typically, this involves new or enhanced capabilities to respond to emerging future threats.

Do you plan to develop further designs for the U.S. military?

Yes, other U.S. Department of Defense agencies are already interested in the ANCILLARY technologies.

Quickfire questions

What or who inspires you?

My father inspired me to chase my dreams of working in the aerospace field. Today, my coworkers at DARPA inspire me every day with their knowledge and innovations.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Working at DARPA is an amazing and short-lived opportunity. Our DARPA culture is to rotate innovators in and out on about a four-year cycle. Being given the chance to work at the forefront of U.S. technology development is amazing, and I can’t wait to get to work every day. I invite you to learn more about DARPA.

What makes you smile?

My family, comedy television shows, selfless acts, cute animal behavior.

What is your greatest achievement to date?

Becoming a successful program manager in the aerospace industry.

What is your biggest regret?

Too much to do and enjoy, not enough time.

What would you say to someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

You have to ask for what you want in life and your career. Follow your dreams.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Everything. This is the dream of all; to be able to go back in time with the knowledge and wisdom gained through a lifetime.

This story first appeared in our subscriber-only weekly Blueprint newsletter. Receive exclusive interviews and analyses like this, direct to your inbox every Sunday, by subscribing to IE+.