Watch this pilotless, 24-fan aircraft lift off for the first time

DARPA's VTOL drone is a fifth the size of the main prototype

American military contractor DARPA has just finished its first test flight of its latest project, a 24-fan drone. Rather the testing the full-sized version, the firm instead built a prototype one fifth its size and if the footage below is anything to go by, the strange design really works!

Built by Aurora Flight Sciences under contract from DARPA, the Lightning Strike is being designed to carry several thousand pounds worth of cargo without the need for a pilot. With a planned top speed of 400 knots (that's roughly 460 mph), the finished incarnation is pencilled in for a 2018 release and is intended to fly large quantities of cargo remotely.

"The successful subscale aircraft flight was an important and exciting step for Aurora and our customer," comments Tom Clancy, Aurora's chief technology officer. "Our design's distributed electric propulsion system involves breaking new ground with a flight control system requiring a complex set of control effectors. This first flight is an important, initial confirmation that both the flight controls and aerodynamic design are aligning with our design predictions."

Based on a VTOL concept (Vertical TakeOff and Landing), the LightningStrike prototype successfully took off from its test flight and fly without a hitch, however, however, DARPA and Aurora Flight Sciences now have the task of translating that success into the much larger version.

Aurora says its going to spend the next 12 months perfecting the LightningStrike's on-board flight system and continue design and construction of the finished, full-scale prototype. With its intended finish date a mere two years away, that's a lot of work to get something as ambitious as 24-fan, VTOL drone ready for service.

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