The Navy may be way behind schedule in launching its fleet of unmanned war copters, but that's not the only kind of heli-drone the world's got to worry about. The Naval Research Lab has also patented technology that allows a UAV to switch between helicopter and fixed wing modes mid-flight.
Call it a transformer UAV, call it Michael Bay's dream drone, or call it the Stop-Rotor Rotary Wing Aircraft, which is actually what it's called. Here’s the description at the NRL:
The stop rotor aircraft is capable of both a helicopter mode vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) and efficient high speed fixed wing flight by flipping the left wing/rotor blade 180 degrees between flight modes. Conversion between flight modes will take about 1-2 seconds and … a prototype battery electric aircraft is being developed that is capable of over 30 minutes flight duration and a cruise speed of 100 knots. Hybrid power systems could provide much greater duration and range. The 38 inch long removable payload bay can carry up to 25 lbs.
That one to two seconds of free fall would be severely deleterious to a manned aircraft, but, while it’s nonetheless got to be carefully calibrated, it’s nothing to a drone. The Navy is interested in the tech because it allows for greater versatility and efficiency in any number of combat-related tasks—specifically, for dropping sonobuoys, electro-optic systems or missile decoys into enemy territory.
Steven Tayman, an NRL aerospace engineer, told AFCEA, that “You could use the speed and range to deploy from a ship or remote area without a runway and drop sensors on the ground for monitoring what’s going on. That would be pretty easy.”
As is so often the case, the concept incidentally boasts some promising innovations for non-military use, too. Since it allows the drone to take off and land in tight spots and then fly more swiftly and much more energy efficiently once airborne, it would appear to be ideal for disaster response or scientific expeditions.
The heli-drone-plane is just entering the prototype phase; the Navy flew a test aircraft last November. If all goes well, it may demonstrate a midflight switch from helicopter to fixed wing this June. After that, no drone may ever be as it seems again.