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DARPA orders VTOL robots for 'covert payload placement'

Tailsitter two-stroke 'V-Bats' drop off surprise packages

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DARPA, the US military research bureau occasionally prone to embarrassing tumbles from the teetering kitchen stool of unreasonable risk while groping wildly for the inaccessible biscuit tin of technological dominance secreted atop the unscalable refrigerator of unfeasibility, has done it again.

The maverick Pentagon deathnerds, according to federal documentation issued just this afternoon, have handed out $369,677 for the purpose of "Covert Precision Emplacement of Small Payloads" from the "V-Bat Aircraft".

The V-Bat, as one really might have guessed, is the vertical-takeoff version of the Bat - a series of small unmanned aircraft produced by MLB Co (www.spyplanes.com). A V-Bat assembled for flight has a wingspan of 10 feet, weighs 70lb and can fly for up to 5 hours on a fill of two-stroke juice. According to the company brochure (pdf) it takes off and lands in tailsitter mode, and can tip over into winged flight to travel at up to 110 knots - almost 140 mph.

The V-Bat can be fitted with a variety of spyeye-type payloads and will lift off, fly about and land again all autonomously - you don't need to control it in flight, just tell it where to go on a GUI map control system.

So far, so ordinary: there are plenty of other UAV/UASs of similar capability out there if you have the best part of $100k to spare.

Where DARPA come in is the covert placement of small payloads bit, which is a little more interesting. A V-Bat might drop down out of the sky to plant such things as remote cameras/bugs, communications relays, marker beacons, small battery powered groundcrawler or inside-buildings flybots etc etc. The V-Bat's payload is listed as 5lb, but presumably might might squeeze in a pound or two more by sacrificing fuel.

One might have thought this sort of thing to be in service with the US military already, but evidently it isn't or DARPA wouldn't be looking into it. The lack of such capability is probably accounted for by the fact that as yet VTOL UAV/UASs are still quite rare.

There's nothing terribly "DARPA hard" (ie so hard it probably can't be done) about this, though: similar feats have already been demonstrated by full-sized unmanned or optionally manned supply helicopters. ®

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