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 (OTC:RYCEY) will supply an AE 1107C turboshaft engine to run three Honeywell (NASDAQ:HON) 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 (NYSE:BA) and Textron (NYSE:TXT) 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.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.