DARPA asks Aurora Flight Sciences to continue work to design heavy-lift seaplane for use in rough seas

May 23, 2024
Liberty Lifter will be a heavy-lift, long-range seaplane that operates efficiently in rough seas and at very low altitudes in ground effect.

ARLINGTON, Va. – Aircraft designers at Aurora Flight Sciences Corp. in Manassas, Va., are moving forward with a U.S. military research project to design a futuristic seaplane able to operate in rough seas for weeks at a time, and carry payloads as heavy as 45 tons for distances between 4,000 and 6,500 miles.

Officials of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., announced an $8.3 million order to Aurora earlier this month to extend the company's current Liberty Lifter work.

Liberty Lifter will be a heavy-lift, long-range seaplane that operates efficiently at very low altitudes in ground effect. Aurora and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. in Poway, Calif., are working on the Liberty Lifter project.

In February 2023 DARPA announced two teams -- General Atomics working with Maritime Applied Physics Corp. (MAPC) in Baltimore; and Aurora Flight Sciences working with Gibbs & Cox, a Leidos company in Arlington, Va., and ReconCraft in Clackamas, Ore. -- to develop designs for the Liberty Lifter Seaplane Wing-in-Ground Effect full-scale demonstrator.

Related: Aurora Flight Sciences joins General Atomics in DARPA project to design long-range, heavy-lift seaplane

The Liberty Lifter program aims to demonstrate a leap-ahead in operational capability by designing, building, floating, and flying a long-range, low-cost X-Plane capable of seaborne strategic and tactical heavy lift.

For the Liberty Lifter project, the Aurora Flight Sciences and General Atomics teams will focus on designing a seaplane with extended maritime operations in high sea states that is affordable to produce, and that involves complex flight and sea surface controls.

The General Atomics team is designing a twin-hull mid-wing design to optimize on-water stability and seakeeping using distributed propulsion with 12 turboshaft engines. Aurora Flight Sciences, meanwhile, is working on a design that more closely resembles a traditional flying boat, with a single hull, high wing, and eight turboprop engines.

The Liberty Lifter long-range seaplane will provide smooth operations in ground effect and in rough seas and waves that are four to eight feet high. Ground effect describes the added aerodynamic buoyancy produced by a cushion of air below an aircraft moving closely to the ground or surface of the water.

Related: DARPA picks General Atomics to design long-range, heavy-lift seaplane that operates for weeks in rough seas

The Aurora Flight Sciences and General Atomics teams will try to achieve smooth flight while flying over waves as high as eight to 13 feet, with high lift at low speeds to reduce wave impact loads during takeoff and landing in waves from 4 to 8 feet high. The seaplane is expected to accommodate wave impact loads and be able to operate in high-traffic areas, and operate at sea for weeks at a time with long periods between land-based maintenance.

DARPA researchers are emphasizing low cost, easy-to-fabricate designs, with Liberty Ship-style manufacturing. The seaplane also should have complex aero and hydrodynamic interactions during takeoff and landing, with advanced sensors and controls to avoid rogue wave impacts.

The Liberty Lifter seaplane should be able to take off and land in waves from four to eight feet high; fly in ground effect above waves from 8 to 13 feet high; fly at altitudes from ground effect to 10,000 feet, and operate for four to six weeks at a time carrying payloads of at least 90 tons.

On-water amphibious payload deployment and retrieval should be via nose and tail ramps; the seaplane should be able to carry at least two U.S. Marine Corps Amphibious Combat Vehicles, and cargo in 20-foot container units.

Related: Aurora and General Atomics move forward on project to design heavy-lift seaplane to operate in high waves

The Aurora Flight Sciences and General Atomics team will use high-performance computing and multi-disciplinary analysis and optimization tools to model and analyze complex aerodynamic and hydrodynamic interactions; focus on affordable design and manufacturing approaches; use novel manufacturing approaches; and use industry best practices from commercial high-speed vessels.

The program consists of a three-phase developmental cycle with each phase building on the previous phase. On this order Aurora Flight Sciences will do the work in Manassas and Arlington, Va.; Cambridge, Mass.; Indianapolis;; Clackamas and Astoria, Ore.; and Vancouver, Wash., and should be finished by January 2025.

For more information contact Aurora Flight Sciences online at www.aurora.aero, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems at www.ga-asi.com, or DARPA at www.darpa.mil/program/liberty-lifter.

About the Author

John Keller | Editor-in-Chief

John Keller is the Editor-in-Chief, Military & Aerospace Electronics Magazine--provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronics and optoelectronic technologies in military, space and commercial aviation applications. John has been a member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since 1989 and chief editor since 1995.

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