The Black Knight Transformer, an off-road vehicle that can takeoff and fly like a helicopter, successfully completed initial flight tests, according to its developer, Advanced Tactics Inc., El Segundo, Calif. The vehicle, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA, flew unmanned with the controls handled by the onboard autopilot. A safety cable let a ground technician control altitude and stability. The cable also supplied electrical power so the craft could safely shut itself down after landing in case of an emergency. Outrigger landing gear was added to prevent it from falling over on landing during testing. (They were not needed.)
The craft can hover at 10,000 ft, though it was limited to about 10 ft for the tests. Its eight rotors each have a dedicated motor. A high-speed controller balances engine speed and, thus, the rpm of the rotors to maintain stability and directional control. The eight rotors eliminate the need for an engine transmission or counterbalancing tail rotor. The engines and rotors fold inward when the vehicle drives on land. This makes the vehicle less than 8.5-ft wide, small enough for standard highways and able to fit inside C-130 transport aircraft.
For driving on land, the Black Knight rides on large truck tires and shocks for terrain handling and to soften landings. The wheels are driven by an independent engine and transaxle for speeds up to 70 mph.
The 4,400-lb vehicle is highly modular for rapid repair and reconfiguration. For instance, each motor and rotor pair can be replaced in the field by two people and the mission package can be rapidly changed from casualty evacuation to cargo resupply. Additionally, the automobile portion of the vehicle can be removed for additional payload capacity or replaced with a boat or amphibious hull for operating on water.
The Black Knight has a large interior volume compared to its overall footprint, which makes it a good candidate for civilian tasks such as package delivery, firefighting, and rescue. Military missions would include casualty evacuation and resupply convoys — both potentially dangerous — so the Black Knight would carry them out without risking a pilot. Military planners envision the Black Knight rescuing wounded soldiers by landing in a safe zone, driving to the wounded GIs, then driving them out to a safe zone for takeoff.