US defense agency is engineering a small military vertical-takeoff aircraft

The agency is looking for a plane that can launch from ship flight decks and small austere land locations.
Loukia Papadopoulos
DARPA is launching a new VTOL.
DARPA is launching a new VTOL.


The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has begun a program called the AdvaNced airCraft Infrastructure-Less Launch And RecoverY X-Plane, nicknamed ANCILLARY, that aims to develop and flight demonstrate technologies required for the production of a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL), low-weight, high-payload, and long-endurance aircraft.

Minimizing personnel costs and vulnerability

“The goal is to build a plane that can launch from ship flight decks and small austere land locations in adverse weather without launch and recovery equipment typically needed for these systems,” stated DARPA’s press release published on Friday.

“The ability for the warfighter to deploy and retrieve such systems in challenging conditions without reliance on infrastructure would minimize personnel, costs, and vulnerability during sensitive operations,” said Steve Komadina, the DARPA program manager for ANCILLARY.

In the past few years, there has been plenty of VTOL research investments leading to innovative vehicle configurations spanning size, weight, power, and cost. The VTOL industry has seen the evolution of advancements in small propulsion systems, high capacity, low-weight batteries, fuel cells, materials, electronics, and low-cost additive manufacturing that can now enable new architectures and designs to be explored.

“ANCILLARY plans to use a multi-disciplinary approach that will bring together developments in advanced control theory, aerodynamic modeling, and advanced propulsion to solve a combination of challenging design objectives,” said Komadina.

“The upcoming Proposers Day and Expo on September 20, 2022, will not only bring together traditional aircraft manufactures, but also non-traditional military contractors that have been investigating commercial VTOL solutions.”

The AFWERX program

In August of 2021, the US Air Force’s AFWERX program, initially announced in 2017, aimed to inject entrepreneurial tech into original ideas that arise internally to fast-track the best concepts from both military and civilian worlds.

In June of 2021, the US Air Force announced its opening for submissions from other companies as entrants into a novel High-Speed VTOL (HSVTOL) challenge. This saw the introduction of submissions that saw heavy testing in runway-free service and flexible operations workflow.

One of the most popular entries was a helicopter called the Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawk, but it could only fly up to 193 knots (222 mph, 257 km/h), since it was equipped with a retreating blade stall.

Another entry was the tilt-rotor Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey which was quicker, accelerating to 305 knots (351 mph, or 565 km/h), but this top speed had a minimum altitude of 15,000 ft, and it was more complicated than a helicopter.

Finally, the Barracuda from Advanced Tactics/RotorX could achieve a top velocity of 480 knots (550 mph, or 890 km/h), and move up to 12,500 lbs (5,760 kg) of cargo, which is roughly the same as 14 passengers in its pressurized cabin.

Of the 218 applicants, the AFWERX group approved 35 designs for final entry to be demoed in a US Air Force HSVTOL showcase. These final models will likely reshape the US Army’s future operations along with DARPA’s latest VTOL.