Concept drawings of SPRINT designs have been released by Aurora Flight Sciences, above, and Bell Textron, below.

Concept drawings of SPRINT designs have been released by Aurora Flight Sciences, above, and Bell Textron, below. AURORA FLIGHT SCIENCES

DARPA picks two firms to design a fast, runway-less airplane

Bell, Aurora reveal their X-Plane concepts.

Two companies will vie to design a new high-speed, runway-independent aircraft, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency announced today.

“As of May 2024, two performers—Aurora Flight Sciences and Bell Textron, Inc.—have been awarded contracts for Phase 1B” of the Speed and Runway Independent Technologies, or SPRINT program, a DARPA official said in an email. “Performers have approximately one year to complete preliminary design work for their aircraft.” 

The SPRINT “X-plane” program seeks an aircraft that can take off and land from anywhere, like a helicopter, but also move at very high speeds like a fighter jet. 

DARPA has partnered with Air Force Special Operations Command on the SPRINT plane. As more U.S. operations shift to the Pacific, the military is seeking new ways to bridge large distances of bodies of waters without relying on easily targetable runways. 

“Bell is honored to be selected for the next phase of this revolutionary program and ready to execute preliminary design,” Jason Hurst, Bell’s executive vice president of engineering, said in a statement on Tuesday. 


The BELL SPRINT X-Plane concept

The company also unveiled new concept art for the aircraft, displaying large vertical tilt rotors not dissimilar to the V-22 Osprey. Bell described its speed as more than 400 knots.

On May 20, Aurora Flight Sciences unveiled its own concept, featuring two fans embedded within the aircraft’s fixed wings. Company officials say this fan-in-wing, or FIW, approach could power the plane to a cruise speed of 450 knots.

“The FIW technology could be scaled to four or more lift fans to meet future aircraft requirements, and it could unlock opportunities for a future family of systems. Similarly, while an uncrewed demonstrator offers benefits in testing and risk reduction, the FIW technology would be fully transferable to traditional aircraft with crews,” Aurora said in a statement.

Bell and Aurora beat out Northrop Grumman Aeronautic Systems and Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to get to this new phase of the program. But last week Northrop announced that they had been selected for a similar recent DARPA effort: the, AdvaNced airCraft Infrastructure-Less Launch And Recovery program, which seeks to build a drone that can take off from ship flight decks with minimal infrastructure. 

Audrey Decker contributed to this post.