Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

DARPA's LightningStrike Hybrid-Electric Plane Could Be a Stroke of Genius

By Rich Smith - Mar 13, 2016 at 8:13AM

You’re reading a free article with opinions that may differ from The Motley Fool’s Premium Investing Services. Become a Motley Fool member today to get instant access to our top analyst recommendations, in-depth research, investing resources, and more. Learn More

It sounds like a scary new fighter jet -- but it's actually airlines that should be most frightened of "LightningStrike."

Introducing LightningStrike. Image source: Aurora Flight Sciences.

DARPA, America's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, houses the "mad scientists" branch of the Pentagon and has been responsible for developments as diverse as the Internet and GPS to drones and the first stealth fighter. Today's news is more in line with the former ideas than the latter, though. Despite the scary name, "LightningStrike" won't kill you.

But it just might kill the airline industry.

Introducing LightningStrike
Earlier this week, DARPA unveiled its latest pet project: LightningStrike, a hybrid-electric airplane capable of taking off from the ground vertically like a helicopter, then flying horizontally like a plane, all with the help of a series of 24 hybrid-electric ducted fans arranged along fore and aft wings.

Working under the supervision of Aurora Flight Sciences, which DARPA named prime contractor on the project, Rolls-Royce (RYCEY 0.94%) will supply an AE 1107C turboshaft engine to run three Honeywell (HON 0.35%) generators. These, in turn, will power a half-dozen fans on the plane's front wing, and an additional 18 fans ranged along a larger rear wing. The wings, which can pivot, will direct the fans' blast to provide vertical lift for launch and landing, and shift their orientation to provide propulsion for travel.

What it means to investors
DARPA says that the aircraft, now in Phase 2 testing under its Vertical Takeoff and Landing Experimental X-Plane (VTOL X-Plane) program, should be ready for test flights by 2018.

Being the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA naturally plans to use LightningStrike first and foremost as a military aircraft, aiming to improve on the performance of the V-22 Osprey that Boeing (BA -1.25%) and Textron (TXT 1.94%) currently build for the military. DARPA's hope is that 24 small electric fans will produce "less blast, less heat, [and be] quieter and less disruptive" than the massive twin engines that power the Osprey. Aurora CEO John Langford told CNN that once complete, LightningStrike will be able to "get into places that the V-22 can't." 

Textron Bell-Boeing Osprey -- the plane LightningStrike could one day replace. Image source: Boeing.

But while the military provides an attractive entry market for LightningStrike, it's almost certainly not the only place this airplane will go. LightningStrike is being designed to fly at speeds from 345 mph to 460 mph. That's only about 120 mph slower than the cruising speed on a jet-powered Boeing 737 -- and about as fast as Textron's Cessna Citation M2 business jet. It's two to three times as fast as a Bell 429 helicopter.

But unlike a 737 or a Cessna, LightningStrike won't be limited to taking off from (or landing on) an airfield. And unlike a Bell helicopter (which doesn't need an airport), LightningStrike will fly fast.

Uber for airplanes?
All of this means that LightningStrike could be much bigger news than just another $90 million contract awarded to DARPA's contractors. In a civilian configuration (and with a less belligerent nametag), LightningStrike could even enable the creation of an "Uber for aircraft" service.

DARPA specifications call for LightningStrike to reach a payload capacity of 40% of the craft's empty weight -- so about 4,000 to 4,800 pounds. That's actually a bit bigger than the "useful load" specification for Cessna's Citation, which can carry as many as seven passengers.

Whether LightningStrike was designed as a drone or as a piloted aircraft, this opens up the possibility for it to serve as a runway-independent "air taxi" service, ferrying passengers from point to point -- rather than along the "hubs" and "spokes" so beloved of major airlines today.

It may take a decade or so for this to play out. But long-term, I see real potential for LightningStrike to enable the Uber-ization of air travel.

Powered by Honeywell and Rolls-Royce, Aurora's LightningStrike could soon be landing at an airport -- or maybe not an airport -- near you. Image source: Aurora Flight Sciences.

Invest Smarter with The Motley Fool

Join Over 1 Million Premium Members Receiving…

  • New Stock Picks Each Month
  • Detailed Analysis of Companies
  • Model Portfolios
  • Live Streaming During Market Hours
  • And Much More
Get Started Now

Stocks Mentioned

Honeywell International Inc. Stock Quote
Honeywell International Inc.
$173.81 (0.35%) $0.61
Rolls-Royce Holdings plc Stock Quote
Rolls-Royce Holdings plc
$1.08 (0.94%) $0.01
The Boeing Company Stock Quote
The Boeing Company
$136.72 (-1.25%) $-1.73
Textron Inc. Stock Quote
Textron Inc.
$61.07 (1.94%) $1.16

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

Related Articles

Motley Fool Returns

Motley Fool Stock Advisor

Market-beating stocks from our award-winning analyst team.

Stock Advisor Returns
S&P 500 Returns

Calculated by average return of all stock recommendations since inception of the Stock Advisor service in February of 2002. Returns as of 07/01/2022.

Discounted offers are only available to new members. Stock Advisor list price is $199 per year.

Premium Investing Services

Invest better with The Motley Fool. Get stock recommendations, portfolio guidance, and more from The Motley Fool's premium services.