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by Lincoln Parker

This August the Australian movie Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan was released, revealing the most recognised Australian battle of the Vietnam War. It was a significant pitched conflict in a war that had hitherto been defined primarily by guerrilla tactics and small contacts.

At the end of the day, an Australian infantry company of 108 men had survived an unexpected encounter with two Viet Cong formations numbering over 1,000 soldiers and beat them.

During the battle the critical issues of resupply and evacuation of wounded soldiers favoured the Australians due to the intense rain. The heavy rain provided crucial cover to our helicopters, enabling munitions and other supplies to be delivered and the wounded to be evacuated. The outcome might have been very different without the helicopters, but what would have happened were the sun shining instead? Helicopters are large targets, very noisy and will not land during a firefight.

In part, this is what inspired former RAN aeronautical engineer Andrew Moore to design and develop an autonomous electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. I recently sat down with Andrew to hear more about his innovations, work with Defence and the Defence Innovation Network. Andrew explained his initial inspiration emerged in response to an Army requirement to evacuate a casualty and resupply soldiers in combat with critical cargo in a way that doesn’t put a helicopter and its crew at risk.

Moore named the product Vertiia and, partnering with Mission Systems to provide the sensing and autonomous architecture, submitted a Defence Innovation Hub proposal, winning a Phase 1 contract to explore the concept for Army application. Similar to a tilt rotor the aircraft takes off and lands vertically and then flies efficiently on wing lift, like an aeroplane. Andrew designed the aircraft based on the box wing, which evolved from Australian aeronautical pioneer Lawrence Hargrave’s box kite glider.

Moore explains that the box wing is the single most efficient aerodynamic design, perfect for an eVTOL aircraft. It is structurally and aerodynamically efficient, providing a lightweight, very fast aircraft with quite a high payload, he said. This design enables it to fly at very low altitudes at a cruising speed of 300 kph, and do it quietly. The system is designed to map out the optimum route autonomously, which includes avoiding areas where an enemy might be, taking advantage of terrain to stay out of harm’s way.

What this means in an operational sense is that a commander who needs an urgent resupply or a medivac, would demand Vertiia and forget about it. If it’s within 100km it will arrive within 20 minutes in near silence, having identified a suitable landing site within the vicinity autonomously.

Once landed, supplies can be unloaded and a casualty with a medic can be put on the aircraft. It will automatically return to base to ensure the casualty is treated within the golden hour.

The advantages over helicopters are significant. The simple design is also cost effective, without all the moving parts and over-engineering of a helicopter. Vertiia’s electric motors don’t require the same maintenance and are far cheaper to run. There are no pilots to train, and although the model does have the option to be flown if/when needed, Andrew says the effort required is far easier than any helicopter.

Moore is also testing hydrogen fuel cells for future versions of the Vertiia, providing significant range advantages (out to 800km). And as the model was designed from the outset to be operated from ships it will provide commanders with many new options from rapid transport, surveillance and loitering capabilities to armed attack.

When Vertiia gets off the ground it will not only disrupt the role of helicopters and traditional VTOL aircraft like the V-22 Osprey, but like many military developments it will find its way into the commercial world challenging our current modes of transport, including commercial airliners.

Note: This article was published by Australian Defence Magazine online and in hard copy in ‘ADM’s Defence Week Premium Edition’. Lincoln Parker works for the NSW Defence Innovation Network (an initiative of the NSW Government, Defence Science & Technology Group and seven NSW universities). The author’s views are his own.