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You thought it looked ungainly in the air?

SR/C concept for the DARPA Transformer TX programme, in ground mode. Credit: AAI Corp

BA here doesn't like to fly

Left to itself the aircraft would soon come down again as the rotors lost energy (it wouldn't crash, though, as more pitch could be used during descent, dumping the kinetic energy of the falling copter into the rotor disc again and allowing a soft landing - this is how ordinary helicopters cope with an engine failure). But an SR/C CarterCopter, having made its jump liftoff, accelerates forward using prop thrust. Even a low forward speed makes the rotors spin on their own and generate lift, and the machine is flying like an autogyro. As speed increases still more, the load gradually shifts from rotors to wings and the craft is in aeroplane mode.

To make a vertical landing, a CarterCopter simply autorotates down like a normal helicopter that has lost engine power: the descent speed is arrested just before landing by increasing pitch and so making the blades whirl much faster.

As Transformer TX, AAI would build a more powerful CarterCopter with a ducted prop driven by a gas turbine, able to fold its wings and rotor mast for ground travel. In ground mode the turbine would drive the wheels using an electric transmission.

According to Aviation Week, AAI has allied with other companies as well as CarterCopter for the Transformer TX project. Terrafugia, builder of the Transition roadable-plane project, is on board - probably for their expertise in folding wings. Bell Helicopter and Textron's light armoured vehicles unit are also on the team.

The Transformer TX is nominally intended for service with the US Marines, offering aviation capability to small combat units not big enough to have attached aircraft. Though the jarheads* are famously much more fond of wacky hover aircraft than other armed services (they were key backers of the Harrier and its successor the F-35B, not to mention the famous V-22 Osprey tiltrotor), even they aren't mad enough to have kicked off Transformer TX.

The agency behind Transformer TX, as regular readers will be well aware, is of course DARPA - apparently taking a break from its usual mission of developing the machine warriors which will one day rebel against humanity and exterminate us all.

It would be standard DARPA practice at this stage of a project to award funds to more than one contending design team, so as to select the most promising plan later: other Transformer TX awards for different craft can be expected. Rumour has it that Lockheed Martin's famous "Skunk Works" advanced-projects shop will also make the initial cut, though as yet no details of their machine have been made public.

It's all good news for those of us still hoping, after so many decades of disappointment, for our flying cars. It's early days yet for Transformer TX, however. ®

*US Marines are so called by other servicemen for the extreme commitment they show towards having no hair on the sides of their heads and a sharply defined, somewhat jar-lid-like disc of very short stubble on top. No amount of angry emails will deter your correspondent - an 11-year Royal Navy man back in the day - from using this term, so any offended jarheads or ex-jarheads out there may as well not bother writing in.

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