DARPA's hot for futuristic helicopter-like delivery drones

The Pentagon is developing unmanned aircraft for supply runs that can be controlled from a mobile phone or tablet -- think of it as Amazon drones in olive drab.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
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DARPA's ARES program is developing unmanned aerial vehicles to carry out reconnaissance missions (top left), casualty evacuation (top right), and cargo resupply (top center and bottom). DARPA

In hard-to-reach war zones, it can be near impossible to get supplies to ground soldiers or conduct rescue missions without coming under enemy fire or landing in minefields.

Spurred by these logistical issues, the US Department of Defense in its DARPA division is pushing to develop unmanned helicopter-like aircraft -- aka drones -- for supply runs, airborne reconnaissance missions, and casualty evacuations.

Not your ordinary drones, these futuristic machines will be designed to carry up to 3,000 pounds, have their own power system, fuel, digital flight controls, and remote command-and-control interfaces. As envisioned by DARPA, troops will be able to control these unmanned aerial vehicles with mobile apps on their smartphones or tablets.

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The aircraft, still just concepts at this time, are being created within DARPA's Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES) program and are currently in their third and final design phase. Lockheed Martin Skunk Works is the lead designer and in charge of systems integration for the third phase of the program.

Getting supplies to soldiers on the front line can be a major challenge. According to the Department of Defense, combat outposts need roughly 100,000 pounds of material per week. If soldiers are located high in the mountains or deep in a jungle, trucking in supplies is often out of the question. Helicopters can do the job, but demand for drop-offs often exceeds helicopter availability.

"Many missions require dedicated vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) assets, but most ground units don't have their own helicopters," DARPA program manager Ashish Bagai said in a statement. "Our goal is to provide flexible, terrain-independent transportation that avoids ground-based threats, in turn supporting expedited, cost-effective operations and improving the likelihood of mission success."

The Pentagon has already experimented with a pair of unmanned K-Max K-1200 helicopters, sporting a traditional helicopter design and rather modest capabilities, on short-range cargo resupply missions to forward operating bases in Afghanistan.

The goal of the ARES program is for the eventual flight-worthy drones to go as fast as a small aircraft and also be capable of vertical take-off and landing -- a hybrid approach found in the V-22 Osprey used by the US Marines Corps. The uncommon design of built-in twin tilting ducted fans instead of traditional rotors in the ARES aircraft would allow for hovering and landing within small areas, as on rugged terrain and ships. In fact, according to DARPA, these systems should be able to land in zones half the area needed by helicopters of similar size.

Delivery drones have all of a sudden become a thing. In December, Amazon revealed that it has been testing microwave-sized drones to deliver packages within 30 minutes of an order being placed. The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, just began testing drone deliveries for official documents.

The Pentagon has a big push on for next-generation helicopters, working through various projects to devise fleets of new rotorcraft that would go into service within the next 25 to 40 years.