UK to build robot stealth raygun jet/copter
Bids for droid tail-sitter with pop-out chopper
Aerospace firms are competing for a "classified" UK MoD contract to build a robotic military stealth aircraft which would be able to hover like a helicopter or fold its rotors and fly as an aeroplane. The "novel air concept" would be able to operate "within urban canyons" and deploy radical new weapons such as microwave or laser rayguns.
There's also a thing for getting stones out of horses' hooves underneath.
News of the commercial bids comes from Aviation Week & Space Technology, which names  UK-headquartered arms globocorp BAE Systems, Euro missile alliance MBDA (partly owned by BAE) and British uni spinout Cranfield Aerospace as competitors to build the Novel Air Concept prototype.
The MoD's Defence Science organisation had already released some details on the Concept. Specifically, the military boffins would like to see:
A more cost-effective means of achieving the effects currently provided by manned aircraft and cruise missiles by using new concepts in unmanned air vehicles (UAVs)/unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs). The specific effects under consideration are the delivery of novel payloads over remote hostile territory and, specifically, within the urban environment.
Pop-chopper: Good for hovering in urban canyons as well as VTOL
This is seen as  being delivered as "a flying demonstrator within 3 years" (that is by 2012), which is to have the following abilities:
A reusable uninhabited air system with a radius of action of 1000km and able to survive defended air space. Capable of being launched and recovered from land, sea and air with the emphasis on ship based operations. The vehicle is to be able to operate within the urban canyons inherent in the major city landscape.
The MoD's graphic seems to indicate a sort of mini stealth jet able to deploy rotors from its nose and hang vertically from them, setting down perhaps on its back end like the "tail-sitter" VTOL prototypes of yesteryear. The concept of large rotors, rather than a small propellor or even narrower jetpipe, makes sense in the context of the "urban canyon" requirement. A large heli-style vertical-thrust disc is required for an aircraft which is going to hover for any length of time without burning up all its fuel and probably melting its engines to boot.
As to the "novel payloads", again the graphic offers a clue. The mysterious green cabinets between the conventional missiles have something of the look of phased-array antennae, perhaps capable of emitting focused, directable beams of microwaves - most probably for "soft" electronic-warfare purposes, but conceivably as active weapons able to permanently fry enemy circuitry.
It's all very shiny, but you have to wonder just what urban areas in "defended air space" the MoD has in mind for its stealthy robot jet/chopper to penetrate. And you definitely have to wonder whether it would really be more cost-effective than comparatively simple one-shot cruise missiles, whose price is now falling through the few-hundred-k$ range: and which on their own can eliminate most air-defence networks possessed by non-nuclear powers.
There's a definite air of seed-money about this, rather than of something that will actually be much use. We'll be hoping that Cranfield gets the pork in this case - BAE and MBDA have already had more than their share.
We asked for comment from the MoD - after all, they weren't shy about unveiling the concept to begin with - but hadn't heard back as of publication. If we hear any more we'll let you know. ®