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DARPA developing small vertical-takeoff aircraft for military use

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is seeking to develop a revolutionary new vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft.

The program is known as AdvaNced airCraft Infrastructure-Less Launch And RecoverY X-Plane, or ANCILLARY. The ANCILLARY program aims to develop a "leap-ahead" craft that can land and take off in areas without preexisting air bases or other infrastructure, operate in adverse weather conditions, and even deploy from the decks of naval vessels without specialized launch and recovery equipment. DARPA has not stated if the program is intended to develop a crewed or uncrewed craft, but a video released by the agency depicts pilots operating the craft with a tablet, implying a remotely piloted or autonomous vehicle.

In addition to these objectives, the ANCILLARY program aims to develop a craft that has a low weight, can carry large payloads, and can stay in the air for extended periods. The agency has issued a notice inviting proposals from relevant industries and academic organizations for component technologies and manufacturing techniques that such an aircraft would require.

Related: NASA starts testing electric air taxi for 1st time

Steve Komadina, the DARPA program manager for ANCILLARY, said in a DARPA statement (opens in new tab) that "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."

Komadina added that any aircraft stemming from the ANCILLARY program would require bringing together "developments in advanced control theory, aerodynamic modeling, and advanced propulsion to solve a combination of challenging design objectives.”

A rendering of an advanced vertical takeoff and landing aircraft with an optical sensor ball on its nose. (Image credit: DARPA)
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A number of laboratories and manufacturers have been researching and developing similar VTOL aircraft in recent years. The U.S. Air Force's Agility Prime program has been testing remotely piloted VTOL craft (opens in new tab), while NASA has tested its own all-electric vertical takeoff and landing "air taxis" developed by California's Joby Aviation. Such platforms would not require lengthy runways for landing and taking off.

These VTOL aircraft could revolutionize air travel, potentially minimizing the infrastructure required to operate aircraft and reducing the noise associated with traditional rotorcraft like helicopters. In a statement (opens in new tab) published in 2021, NASA claims this class of aircraft could "provide an efficient and affordable system for passenger and cargo transportation, and other applications in the public interest" and "include aircraft like package delivery drones, air taxis and medical transport vehicles."

NASA's Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) National Campaign aims to help usher in the era of city air travel. (Image credit: NASA)
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DARPA will hold an invite-only Proposers Day and Expo on Sept. 20 to review proposals for ANCILLARY program technologies and manufacturing techniques. 

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Brett Tingley
Editor, Space.com

Brett is a science and technology journalist who is curious about emerging concepts in spaceflight and aerospace, alternative launch concepts, anti-satellite technologies, and uncrewed systems. Brett's work has appeared on The War Zone at TheDrive.com, Popular Science, the History Channel, Science Discovery, and more. Brett has English degrees from Clemson University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In his free time, Brett is a working musician, a hobbyist electronics engineer and cosplayer, an avid LEGO fan, and enjoys hiking and camping throughout the Appalachian Mountains with his wife and two children.