Friday, 16 May 2014

New Opportunity - The 'Flying Truck' - "Jack of All Trades" or "Pie in the Sky" Proposition

The past few weeks have seen American interests seek to undertake a continued shopping spree across the UK and Europe with Pfizer's much discussed take-over efforts of Astra-Zenica and GE's acquistional intent toward Alstrom; this the soft-power effects of previous massive QE measures.

Within the automotive world, it was no coincidence that FIAT renamed itself as FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automotive), pronounced simultaneously with the CFA Institute's meeting in Seattle; given the similarly lettered abbreviations. Whilst at the opposite end of the spectrum, the niche supercar producer Spyker advertised its '007' bond issuance, whereby investors purchasing a sizeable clutch of said 'notes' would be provided with the company's newest vehicle; a typical 'starter-motor' approach to the kick-starting of operational efforts seen throughout the history of the overtly 'sexy' niche production vehicles apparently set for supposed future heights.

Into Esoteric Reaches  -

The term 'hybrid' has long been apparent and associated with dual-source powertrains within cars, trucks, locomotives and even bicycles. Yet the term is obviously applicable far beyond simply the means of propulsion, essentially intertwining the amalgamation of two or more functions.

In a world where transport evolution has been ostensibly 'linear', wherein specific vehicle types have been dedicated to broadly a singular environment - that of land vs marine vs aeronautical - the history of vehicle evolution has been that of the ever more defined and definite within a specific environment and with specific utility.

The heavy tracked 'off-highway' construction machines through on-road trucks, conventional cars, the largely symbolic supercar and solar-powered EV racers demonstrate the breadth of extremes of the land realm. Whilst upon water a new generation of hyper-sized container ships (as introduced by Moller-Maersk) are diamterically opposed to the use of that icon the Riva Aquarama. And in the air, in one corner are the academic efforts to create ever greater distance human-powered flight in very lightweight constructions, versus the the largest and heaviest payload of the Antonov An-225, excluding of course space exploration.

These few examples illustrate how the three very seperate enviroments of land, sea and air, and specific vehicle functions ranging from the overtly commercial to the overly leisure orientated (and periodically the overtly academic) have primarily driven the evolution of mode-specific vehicles.

However, just as with singular powerplants versus dual-power hybrids, there has seemingly always been a band of experimentors and contrarians who themselves typically occupy small and often descrete industrial corners.

So throughout the apparently 'natural' linear course have been various instances of variously militarily funded, academic supported and (arguably better assessed) corporate financed exercises. Each avidly seeking to find solutions which provide for vehicle projects aligned to what are touted as instrinsic business cases over either the near, medium or long terms, or indeed toward the far horizon.

Each of which hopes to successfully operate within what appear seemingly obvious 'white spaces' either (more likely) within a specific land/sea/air realm, or more daringly across two or even the three traditionally and conventionally seperate transportational arenas.

Such a "white space opportunity" targeting the uncovered / unfulfilled market territory which has been either overlooked or previously deemed unsustainable due to technical, funding or other (often PESTEL related) difficulties.

Cross-Breeding Thus Far -

Given the innate operational limitatations of (often very design) dedicated vehicles to work within their own land realm (on and off road) and wholly unable to operate in water or in air, as long as conventional cars and trucks have existed their have been efforts to overcome these 'natural' limitations through the design of multi-environment vehicles.

Their has been greater success with land-to-water amphibious vehicles as opposed to land-to-air flying vehicles.

The former best exemplified via military applications such as the German Army's adapted VW Kubelwagen into the Schwimmenwagen and likewise the US Army's efforts to do likewise to the Willys and Ford Jeeps of the time; though the larger 'Duck' truck was more prevelent and has come to later serve as 'swimming' novelty tourist vehicles in various tourist cities (inc London). And during peacetime certain entrepreneurs have sought to create similar leisure-craft ranging from the British Amphicar of 1960s (4,000 made), various vehicles made by Gibbs Industries in smaller quantities; with the adaption of ATVs also a contemporary trend. Military forces have maintained an interest in amphibious vehicle capabilities given the western need (via NATO) need to have a wide span of operation with increasingly constrained funding from governments, and appear to have settled upon proven moth-balled and re-commisssioned old wheeled technology' wheeled, and upon newer track systems incorporated into boat-like hulls.

However, it appears that far less success has been had in cross-breeding car and trucks with aircraft.

The stuff of 1950s science-fiction ever promoted the idea of "The Flying Car'', which especially within the USA set-off a sub-culture which flourished to this day. Similarly childrens films such as 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' and 'Harry Potter' showcased "magical" flying cars as did a transformative AMC Matador in James Bond's 'Man With The Golden Gun'. But no such vehicle has successfully been created or adopted given the technical, regulatory and social problems encountered. However, there have been notable attempts such as Henry Ford's concept of a 'Flying Flivver', the US Armies efforts of a 'Flying Jeep' in WW2 and the better known 1949-60s Aerocar. By the 1990s the SkyCar had been conceptually evolved by a Dr Moller at that time after 20 years of incremental research and sporadic funding. However, Moller's history has demonstrated that the capital investment provided has been absorbed by operating costs (however they be allocated) and the deposit funding for the delivery of new vehicles to customers has likewise been absorbed. The seemingly only outcome being the low-height demonstration of a tethered SkyCar in 2003. Today Moller espouses its 'ground effect' based Volantor / Neuera which cosmetically similar to the 'Jetson's' flying car is described as operational only at a low-level (using the down-draft cushion of ground-effect air).

Hopes of the "Flying Truck" -

Advanced Tactics Incorporated of the USA has over the last half-year or so been publicising a new vehicle concept which hopes to cross-breed the functional aspects of a multi-rotar helicopter and that of a cargo / passenger carrying off-road truck

From this one basic premis, two projects have been promoted relating to 2 vehicles of different sizes and slightly different raison d'etre.

The seemingly best known is the Black Knight Transformer, the lesser 'off-shoot' being the Panther Transformer.

The central concept has been to effectively try and simulate the flying dynamics of those multi-rotar remote control toy and model craft which have become so prevelant over the last 5-7 years, though they themselves tend to be little more than hover novelty items.

The basic layout of light fuselage and 4 / 6 / 8 rotars however has seemingly been viewed as a useful engineering package for next generation observation drones which unlike their first generation fixed wing counterparts are better suited to urban conditions given the ability to hover stationary.

[NB Quite why the multi-rotar has overtaken the conventional single rotor helicopter design is unclear, but presumably is better able to avoid even stationary movements of 'pitch' and 'yaw'].

The Black Knight -

Thuis vehicle is seen as the core programme consisting of a large capacity body and 8 rotars, and the central effort from which a later 'Panther' vehicle will be derived, itself a smaller craft.

The Black Knight's general engineering specifications (in its overall size at least) has been set so as to transport and collect able and injured service people from front-line war zones. It deploys 8 rotars, one to each of its square body corners and two mounted mid-ships on either side, and is dimensionally: 31 ft long, 19 ft wide and 8 ft tall. To maximise payload and internal volume. Advanced Tactics Inc states that the craft would has a operational ceiling of 10,000 ft and a driven on-ground speed of 70 mph.

The smaller Panther, imagined as deployed for more exacting "special service missions' has 6 rotors and dimensions of 23 ft long, 17 ft wide and 8 ft tall.

Product Remit -

Black Knight itself is envisaged as landing in a safe zone away from the front-line then able to drive in and collect (and retrieve) injured personnel, so not requiring the in-situ infantry team-members to physically lift and return the injured person over what may be a long and hazardous distance to safety and medical assistance, and so able to retain the remaining members as an active force.

As part of its modular-build philosophy AT Inc also states that the props, engines and outriggers can be removed so and a boat-like hull attached to provide a water transport vehicle.

Backdrop and Rationale -

Over the last 13 years or so western military forces have faced ever greater funding pressures as the USA and European nations (under the NATO banner), and over that period utilised much of the investment and equipment stemming from research and development in the 1990s and from previous decades.

As a result there has been much in the way of lower-cost, incremental product and service life-cycle extensions to re-equip and modernise land, sea and air vehicles; items like the 1960s Sea King, Puma and iconic Chinook twin-fan helicopter revised, the Hummer constantly adapted and likewise (though perhaps to a lesser degree) boats and ships re-equiped as more modern navigation and weaponary systems were introduced.

With the increasing national debt burdens of western countries being stretched by QE measures to re-inflate domestic and intra-regional economies, nearly all aspects of governmental budgets are being either frozen or cut.

During this era it is recognised that greater NATO capability integration is necessary so as to try and maintain as much general capability as possible. Yet likewise (as is the historical norm during contraction periods) military agencies seek to explore how smaller budgets may be deployed more intelligently. This means that the subject of 'multi-role' vehicles is very much on the table and understandably seen by many as the 'holy grail'. The obvious hope to increase the span of "in the field operation" in terms of broad functionality and thus greater time spent deployed so reducing costs and maximising value.

Though it should be noted that such solutions inevitably have innate performance compromises, so result in the compromises being assessed and balanced in theoretical form 'on-paper', and the resulting engineering package typically the optimisation of said compromises.

Nonetheless, the idea of a vehicle which has broad functionality in standard guise and/or can be relatively easily reconfigured via a modular-basis for multi-variant guises and tasks, is an appealing one.

Programme Funding -

Having been approved by the US Congressed, the Black Knight programme is presently being financed through the US Army's 'Tele-medicine and Advanced Technology Research Centre' and US Marines' Warfighting Laboratory so as to develop and test a "roadable VTOL aircraft. [VTOL the acronym for Vertical Take Off and per the Harrier 'jump jet'].

Similarly, the Panther project is being sponsored by the 'Air Force Research Laboratory' as part of its "special ops transport challenge programme"

No programme fee details for the 'Transformer' projects appear to be available publicly. However, the USAAF's budget for 2015 is approximately $11.542 trillion. The portion of the 2014 budget aligned to "Airlift Aircraft" as opposed to "Combat" or "Other" is $1.303 trillion". Thus the primary programme that is Black Knight will be drawn from here.

Project Brief -

The following criteria set:

- Transport of at least 2 people + equipment
(this appears to vie against the idea of a sizeable personnel carrier)
- Able to carry 700 lbs gross payload
- Range of 30 kms or more over mountainous terrain
- Fit into the Boeing CV-22 cargo-hold (for transportation)
- A 4 hour 'dress' period from storage condition to flight
- Operate automonously in day and night and poor conditions
- Consider OSHA and AF standards

Public Domain Progress to Date -

Thus far Advanced Tactics Inc. has produced 2 videos (viewable via youtube) promoting its work.

The first was promoted as a concept prototype, but consisted of nothing more than a remote control 8 rotar small model with enlarged fuselage. The camara was deliberately positioned far from the "prototype" vehicle, the distance possibly used to blur the fact that it was only an adapted off-the-shelf or purpose-made scale model. However, the high-pitched whine of what are effectively electric fans highlighted the fact that the demonstration was little more than a publicity event promoting a far from proven concept.

The second video [dated 22nd March 2014] shows what appears a full-sized prototype operating at a low hover (perhaps 8-10ft) and with apparent slow forward movement set within a similar semi-desert environment. It also shows the vehicle moving slowly over the generally flat but unpaved ground. (The speed and progress on ground suggests the use of electric motors).

[NB an orange hi-visibility traffic cone is seen in both videos, presumably as a continuity device to demonstrate project progress].

Advanced Tactics explains that the life-sized prototype is controlled via auto-pilot, with a human pilot simply increasing and decreasing engine power. It was described as "stable, controllable and performed as expected".

Prospective Clients -

Advanced Tactics Inc obviously sees a commercial opportunity for the provision of Black Knight and Panther to the US Army and USAAF, and obviously seeks to offer its products to other such international forces. And whilst presently directed at military applications, the company's own marketing plan will obviously have civil applications listed. It is presumed that these are:

- Peace-keeping forces (UN)
- Disaster relief agencies (Red-Cross, Red Crescent etc)
- Urban Air Ambulance
- Urban Police Special Ops ('SWAT' and Anti-Terrorism) 
- Specific gov't and state agencies
(in mountainous, forest-dense and ribbon-river places)
- Adventure travel companies
- Airlines serving short island-hop routes

Engineering Package -

Black Knights engineering layout has been seen in the past, but (as stated) is clearly inspired and drawn from the fascination with multi-rotor remote-control model craft and toys of recent years. With it comes advantages and disadvantages which must be properly understood and considered.

- Simple initial construction, service dress and variant re-configuration
- Use of readily available low-cost materials, components and systems
(in current square "flat-pack" guise)
- Remote controlled operation option
- Simple CKD or 'glocal' full manufacture

- Cost of 8 engine units (even though off-the-shelf [COTS])
- The 'decoupling' of propeller and wheel engine / drive-train
(an 'elegant' solution is to utilise one powerplant for both modes,
see VW Schwimmenwagen, saving weight and cost)
- The use (cost and mass) of separate electric motor and batteries
- Likelihood of craft instability in certain conditions
(the positioning of 8 engines so high gives a high centre of gravity,
 so promoting vehicle tip-over when driving across hilly ground
and when in boat mode in rough conditions)
- The need for up-armouring of vehicle in front-line environment
(so adding to cost and weight and so undermining performance)  

[NB although Advanced Tactics Inc indicates that engines would be removed for the body on hull contraption, there would be a high probability that the military would wish to use the craft as a small flying boat given its component parts. Thus the vehicle should be designed with this function as an inherent capability].

Alternative Proposal Possibilities -

Any vehicle designed for such an extreme functional span will (as seen) be invariably optimised toward one of the conflicting challenges posed, and Black Knight has been seemingly and necessarily orientated toward its flight role.

However, investment-auto-motives suggests that before travelling down this apparent singular solution route - with its innate drawbacks - that the US Army and USAAF utilise their funds to perhaps better explore alternative engineering packages on the same theme with other institutions and companies, whether from academia, independent aero-engineering consultancies, the broader engineering world, or even conventional helicopter manufacturers (with proviso that they do not "revert to type").

This is because on an off-the-cuff basis, it is suggested that the innate disadvantages of Black Knight could be overcome.

One alternative re-package possibility utilising:

- A sandwich floor structure
- Containing a set of horizontally opposed boxer engines
- Each engine driving two parallel (clutch independent) rotors
(ie 4 engines for 8 rotors, reducing GVW)
- Via collapsable half-shafts / driveshafts
- Enabling outriggers to be dismantled and swung inboard for stowage
- Fan blades aligned and stowed vertically flat against side of vehicle
- So lowering the C of G for ground and water travel

This is but one idea with no serious exploration.

Conclusion -

As no doubt many senior and well experienced military chiefs will attest, the promise of a truly capable 'jack of all trades' vehicle is by its very nature an elusive promise.

Hence whilst some progress has been made with amphibious vehicles, far less so has been achieved with 'flying trucks' able to assist either personnel retrieval from the battleground, personnel delivery to hot-spot places or as importantly in the guise of logistics support craft.

Thus forces have invariably 'battled-on' with suits of very different, task-dedicated vehicles, which invariably become ever more specialised for specific conditions. This especially so at the front line where demands are so much greater. Whereas civilian sourced or lightly civilian modified vehicles can be true budget cost savers where basic transportation needs are required.

Black Knight (and Panther) seek to combine the best of both worlds with the creation of a progressive new vehicle type. However, investment-auto-motives believes that greater conceptual investigation is warranted by not just US agencies but other NATO forces and indeed also non-NATO forces.

However, the application of intelligent thinking should be applauded given the need to align to today's and tomorrow's budget constraints within the context of ever greater urbanisation and the possibility / probability of urban orientated social fractures.

In doing so a new generation of civilian craft could be effectively co-created which go on to serve humanity in a more productive manner to save ever more lives and spread new avenues of commercial and leisure possibilities, from newly emergent mega-city centres to the historical innaccessability of remote eco-regions.