It looks like a giant drone but flies just like a helicopter. But the US Air Force (USAF)’s experimental new “Hexa” – standing ten feet tall with a “halo” of 18 separate propellers that give the aircraft its unusual vertical takeoff and landing capability – is clearly designed for combat support, though its likely future missions remain shrouded in secrecy. The fact that the tactical air wing of the US Special Operations Command – which supports and conducts clandestine US counteterrorism operations worldwide – has supported the craft’s development highlights its shadowy origins and pedigree. With a single seat and no space to transport soldiers or cargo and weighing just 423 pounds, the Hexa seems ideally suited for light observation and aerial surveillance but military officials have yet to confirm its real purpose, adding to the sense of intrigue and mystery that surrounds the craft’s early development.
USAF officials say that Hexa, when fully developed, may well have applications beyond combat support. Initial funding to develop the prototype came through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which often funds projects with dual civilian-military applications. In fact, with the project now in phase 3, other government agencies outside of USAF and even DOD have been invited to field test the aircraft. There is even talk of making a stripped down commercial version available to the general public at amusement parks and other entertainment hubs. (Because Hexa is so lightweight, civilians, under current FAA regulations, could pilot the aircraft without obtaining a formal license).
The craft is also being configured to be piloted remotely (most of the current field testing is pilot-less), which potentially makes it one of the largest unmanned aerial vehicles in the world. Unlike most military aircraft, Hexa’s also completely battery powered, reducing its carbon footprint, and it’s equipped with parachutes and floats that facilitate safe landings, even on water, in the event of an accident or equipment failure.
LIFT Aircraft, the Texas-based company which designed and developed the Hexa, plans to continue flight testing at Eglin Air Force, home to the 7th Special Forces Group, which is tasked with providing tactical air support to U.S. military operations in Central and South America. The Group also played an integral role in the conduct of American counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’re excited about continuing to explore and develop a unique capability to the military: an aircraft that offers air mobility at a cost point comparable with ground transportation, that in the future, with mere hours of training, allows any service member to become a pilot,” said Kevin Rustagi, LIFT’s director of business development, in a press release.