The U.S. Army is fast-tracking its Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) program to usher in a new era of helicopter technology for the 2030s and beyond. This includes ongoing testing and evaluations of two industry teams offering Bell Helicopters V-280 Valor tiltrotor aircraft and Lockheed-Sikorsky-Boeing’s Defiant X coaxial rotor compound helicopter. The Army is seeking a new attack-utility helicopter intended to double the range and speed of the existing UH-60 Black Hawk.
While technical specifics for these proprietary offerings are not likely to be made available due to the ongoing competition, it is clear that the Army is interested in funding the next-generation engineering to advance new, innovative tiltrotor technology. The Bell developers certainly had this need in mind when they envisioned and then built the V-280 Valor for the Army’s Future Vertical Lift program.
“We went after a clean sheet design based on lessons learned from the V-22 [Osprey] and we want to make an aircraft for the air assault mission. Agility at low speed, efficiency range and reach at very high speeds,” Ryan Ehinger, Bell’s vice president and program director for FLRAA, said in a company video.
This “clean-sheet” design described by Bell likely pertains to the technical methods of “optimizing” the advantages of next-generation tiltrotor technology by engineering a robust and capable “control system.”
This “Fly-by-Wire” technology and its connection to control systems seem quite significant, as it aligns with Bell’s intent to build digital controls and computer processing into its V280-Valor avionics and “control systems” to enable new levels of autonomous navigation and flight.
It makes sense that Bell’s tiltrotor design would incorporate new digital avionics, sensors, and high-speed computing to ensure the mission systems, weapons, and sensors could continuously be upgraded as new technology arrives. This will likely draw upon AI-enabled systems able to gather and organize otherwise disconnected streams of incoming sensor data and present optimized solutions and data to human decisionmakers. Years ago, when the Army’s Future Vertical Lift Science and Technology demonstration program defined its technical requirements, the service envisioned technical capabilities which have now matured considerably. The intent was to generate requirements for an air vehicle capable of performing in a superior fashion in the 2030s and beyond, in part using what Army documents referred to as “human-machine” interface wherein computers help reduce the cognitive burden placed upon pilots by performing a wide range of procedural functions autonomously.
Part of the effort to align with Army requirements includes the maturation of autonomous flight technology, something which Bell has built into the V-280 Valor. As far back as 2019, Bell developers conducted a successful “autonomy demo” wherein aircraft operated and flew without human intervention.
“We were sitting on the ground on a runway and I flipped a switch. That started the whole autonomous sequence. The aircraft took off from a hover, climbed out and transitioned into cruise mode. Then it returned to the airfield and converted back into helicopter mode and did an approach to a hover … and did it autonomously,” a senior Bell engineer told The National Interest in 2019. “It opens up the possibility of a self-deployment mission.”
The Army’s emphasis on autonomous capabilities began as far back as 2011 and was grounded in engineering a new generation of “control systems.” For instance, another key element of the Army’s requirements was described as CFIT, for “Controlled Flight into Terrain.” Much like the Fly-by-Wire capability, early Army requirements envisioned the inclusion of new levels of navigational autonomy to improve survivability and operational efficiency for pilots for years to come.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.