Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded a 17-month, $988,000 contract to Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute to develop an autonomous flight system for the Transformer (TX) Program.

The university is also exploring the feasibility of a military ground vehicle that could transform into a vertical-take-off-and-landing (VTOL) air vehicle, Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute said.

The TX is all about flexibility of movement and key to that concept is the idea that the vehicle could be operated by a soldier without pilot training, said Sanjiv Singh, CMU research professor of robotics.

In practical terms, that means the vehicle will need to be able to fly itself, or to fly with only minimal input from the operator. And this means that the vehicle has to be continuously aware of its environment and be able to automatically react in response to what it perceives, Singh said.

Singh has already demonstrated expertise in robotic perception and is planning to demonstrate a fully autonomous helicopter flying in between wires, trees and buildings in DARPA's Organic Air Vehicle II (OAV2) Program.

Earlier this year, while working with Piasecki Aircraft he had demonstrated that a full-size helicopter could avoid low altitude obstacles besides selecting a landing site and land without human input, the Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute said.

The TX program aims to develop a robust ground vehicle that can transform into an air vehicle with vertical take-off and landing capability, while offering significant operational flexibility with the ability to travel 250 nautical miles on land and in the air, or a combination, while carrying up to 1,000 pounds.

The Pentagon's DARPA has selected six vendors, namely, AAI Corporation and Lockheed Martin Company, prime system integrators; Carnegie Mellon University and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, developers of critical enabling technology; and Aurora Flight Sciences partnered with ThinGap, and Metis Design Corp, Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) recipients to participate in this 12-month effort.