Friday, October 30, 2015

DARPA Mission Adaptive Landing Gear Program Gets Criticism

There’s been some breathless coverage of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency experiment with what look like mechanical insect legs to replace the usual wheels or skids helicopters land on. One article called the Adaptive Landing Gear nothing short of “incredible.” The video DARPA publicized is certainly fun to watch (see above), but there’s a lot less utility there than meets the eye — at least for now.

“The only thing that I can see it would have an advantage over what we have in a skid is on a slope,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. Patrick Brady, who won the Medal of Honor and a ton of other decorations for saving more than 5,000 wounded in more than 2,500 combat missions as a rescue helicopter pilot in Vietnam. The Encyclopedia of the Viet Nam War calls him the conflict’s top helicopter pilot. “Looks like a big grasshopper,” Brady said of the leg-like landing gear, developed by the Georgia Institute of Technology on a roughly $1 million DARPA grant.

Another Vietnam vet, retired Army Lt. Col. Bob Greene, who logged 1,900 combat hours flying South Vietnamese and U.S. troops into action in UH-1 Hueys, said the idea is “interesting” but that’s about all. “I love DARPA,” Greene said, “but this is probably not one of their better things.”

The goal is to make it possible to land on slopes or uneven or rocky terrain of the sort combat helicopter pilots often confront and end up hovering over instead of landing on or to put a bird down safely on a rolling ship deck. DARPA program manager Ashish Bagai explained in a briefing to the American Helicopter Society International’s yearly conference last May that, “The feet have tactile feedback; they have pressure feedback. Each foot is individually operated. When you encounter an obstruction, the foot that first contacts the obstruction allows the leg to bend until everything else has contacted terra firma.”

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