Will Lockheed Martin's Transformer Robot Doom Helicopters?

Transformer TX. Image: DARPA.

What happens when the biggest defense contractor in the world, Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT  ) , teams up with the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, to build a robot? They build a Transformer. Yes, you read that correctly, Lockheed is building a Transformer. And it flies. 

Bye-bye, choppers?
According to Kevin Renshaw, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works' lead on Transformer, "Transporting and resupplying troops in rugged, austere terrain has become a major challenge, especially as the U.S. military shifts to using smaller and more distributed combat units." Consequently, DARPA solicited companies to come up with a solution, under its Transformer program, and this resulted in the Transformer TX -- which Lockheed and its partner on the project, Piasecki Aircraft, intend to build.

Transformer TX. Image: Lockheed Martin.

The Transformer TX is an unmanned helicopter that's capable of vertical takeoff and landing, or VTOL. Further, it has a smaller footprint than a conventional helicopter, and Lockheed says, "Transformer's tilting ducted fans allow for a safer operating environment in smaller landing zones with faster transit speeds of up to 200 knots." More pointedly, the Transformer TX can land in an area half the size of what a conventional helicopter requires, and it's safer and more efficient.

More impressively, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Transformer TX is "an unmanned payload transport system that can deliver just about anything. Even a car, with you in it." That makes the Transformer TX an autonomous robotic delivery system that can deliver a payload similar to what a conventional helicopter can deliver. Plus, the Transformer TX has a 250-mile range. 

Lockheed doubles down on unmanned helicopters
The Transformer TX isn't Lockheed's first venture into unmanned VTOL systems. Previously, Lockheed and Kaman Aerospace (NYSE: KAMN  ) successfully transformed a K-MAX helicopter into an unmanned aircraft system, or UAS, and the Marines were so impressed by its capabilities that they extended the K-MAX demonstration indefinitely. Since 2007, the K-MAX has racked up 750 hours in autonomous mode. 

That previous experience no doubt helped with the Transformer TX, and DARPA was so impressed by the preliminary design, it awarded Lockheed $20.3 million to build a prototype system. The next stage is the Critical Design Review, and if that goes well, DARPA can exercise a further option to build and then fly the prototype in 2015. 

What to watch
Regardless of DARPA's decision, Lockheed and Piasecki have said they intend to build the Transformer TX and could start flight testing as early as 2015 -- and if all goes well, the Transformer TX could be a game-changer. With the ability to deliver similar payloads, and land in smaller areas, the Transformer TX could be exactly what combat units need. Further, it could replace conventional helicopters, as Lockheed says the Transformer TX is safer and more efficient than what's currently available. Consequently, this is something investors should watch.

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Read/Post Comments (7) | Recommend This Article (9)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On December 01, 2013, at 11:27 AM, darrkwolff wrote:

    This is all interesting, but I see the word 'autonomous' bandied about, and I have to ask the question: just how autonomous is it, truly? I mean, does this vehicle have an onboard AI that is capable of navigating during flight, assessing the threat level of a landing zone, incorporating defensive countermeasures and evasive maneuvers while in flight, and all without the aid or assistance of a human operator? That, in my own opinion, is the definition of autonomy, where this is concerned.

    If the artists' rendering is also any indication, this vehicle looks like it has a very limits cargo capacity, far less then the V-22 Osprey.

    Now don't get me wrong; it looks promising, but I think perhaps it is far too early to declare the existence and usefulness of an actual autonomous military cargo delivery system.

  • Report this Comment On December 01, 2013, at 11:28 AM, pipes wrote:

    Tilt rotors, ducted fans, VTOL....still have not solved the auto-rotation issue...as to UAV...perhaps it will find a niche...until someone builds a better one and/or it gets hacked...

    UAV do and will have a place..but complete UAV al la terminator just doesn't look good...

  • Report this Comment On December 01, 2013, at 11:59 AM, teebone wrote:

    And if it's like everything else they have tried to build, it will come in way over budget and may or may not work! Another ride for the poor taxpayer at the military-industrial complex's benefit!

  • Report this Comment On December 01, 2013, at 12:48 PM, rotorhead1871 wrote:

    it wont replace the manned helicopter.....these vehicles are small logistical support units....you are not looking at the big picture.....no one is going to let a robot machine transports troops....

  • Report this Comment On December 01, 2013, at 1:29 PM, AlexzGreat wrote:

    So Lockheed and DARPA invented a Corolla delivery machine - it's good to hear that they are diversifying in view of the limited opportunities to do business with the bankrupt US government.

  • Report this Comment On December 01, 2013, at 9:18 PM, rcmansid wrote:

    Looks like the flying car that never seemed to become real in civilian life.

    Molt Taylor built 3 different designs that worked but was stymied by auto crash safety requirements.

    Maybe Eisenhower's "Military Industrial Complex" will succeed where "Civilian Private Enterprize" wasn't allowed to succeed.

  • Report this Comment On December 02, 2013, at 10:19 AM, delm31 wrote:

    The Transformers-robots in disguise.

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