US V-280 Valor Tilt-Rotor Aircraft in First Autonomous Flight

Danazar. CC BY-SA 4.0
Danazar. CC BY-SA 4.0

280 Valor. The next generation of tactical airpower required by the US Army passed a new development milestone recently in Arlington, Texas when Bell’s new V-280 Valor tilt-rotor demonstration vehicle flew autonomously for the first time.

The two sorties were watched closely by Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Rep. Kay Granger.

The acquisition process for new military equipment and tactical firepower has been the focus of much scrutiny in the US Military over recent years with an administration sensitive to the proper management of the defense budget.

The Army’s ambition is to upgrade its fleet to include new vertical lift aircraft and future attack reconnaissance aircraft by 2030.

280 Valor. Danazar. CC BY-SA 4.0
280 Valor. Danazar. CC BY-SA 4.0

A key requirement is for both aircraft to be optionally piloted if the technology allows. However, Bell’s program manager, Ryan Ehinger, was able to confirm that the V-280 achieved all of the manufacturer’s flight goals during the demonstration.

Which included take-off, moving into cruise mode, precise navigation to pre-determined locations, ‘wait-and-loiter’ manoeuvrability, return to vertical take-off and landing configuration and pilot-less landing.

Safety pilots were situated in the cockpit throughout the demonstration as a fail-safe, but Bell’s Chief Engineer, Paul Wilson was also happy to confirm that all the autonomous pre-programmed elements of the flights went ‘without issue.’

Currently there are no future flight tests planned with regard to developing the autonomous flight capabilities and pilot intervention, as with ‘driverless’ cars, continues to be required between specific manoeuvres.

The twin-rotor vertical take-off aircraft currently requires a crew of four and is designed to carry fourteen troops.

Its pre-flight empty weight is just over 33,000 pounds and max take-off weight is almost double that at 57,000 lb.

t has a twin General Electric T64 turboshaft powerplant which translates into a top cruise speed of 320 mph.

Combat range for the aircraft varies between nearly 600 miles and a thousand depending upon payload and flight conditions, extending to almost 2,400 miles ferry range.

Its flight ceiling is 6,000 feet, or 1,800 metres. The rotors and drive-shaft tilt while the engines remain in place. A driveshaft runs right through the rigid wing which allows both rotors to be driven by a single engine should one fail.

The development of the V-280, named for its designed cruising speed of 280 knots, for the US Army Joint Multi-Role Technology Program (JMR-TD) is part of the US military’s Long-Range Assault Aircraft program. S

ikorsky-Boeing are also involved, flying an SB-1 Defiant demonstrator, but have experienced development delays due to design issues with regard to the rotor blades.

280 Valor. Danazar. CC BY-SA 4.0
280 Valor. Danazar. CC BY-SA 4.0

Bell have worked hard to reduce the overall weight of the V-280 in an effort to bring down the final production cost using composites in the construction of the wings, fuselage and tail.

Construction elements of the wing, the skins and rib sections, have been made using a honeycomb sandwich design with large carbon cores to reduce the number of parts required.

Paste-bonding parts together, rather than using metal fasteners has also helped to value engineer production costs to thirty-per-cent lower than a traditional scale-wing build such as the V-22.

As a result, Bell expects the V-280 to cost no more than the AH-64E or the MH-60M.

Since the V-280’s maiden flight in December 2017 Bell have logged over 160 flight hours with seven test pilots and has recorded flight speeds of over 280 knots, an accelerated turn at 2G, has covered more than 300 nautical miles on one flight and on another was able to climb to 11,500 feet (nearly 3000 m).

The advent of autonomous flying attack craft seems to be assured and it will only be a matter of time before the technology is there and capable of carrying out the demands of future warfare as required by the US military.

$442 million Upgrade for The B-52

A competition by suppliers will be confirmed soon with both Bell and Sikorsky-Boeing keen to win what would undoubtedly be an extremely lucrative contract.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE