Helicopters may be able to take off and land from places that fixed-wing airplanes can't, but those whirling exposed rotor blades still keep them out of tight spaces. That's why Israel's Tactical Robotics Ltd created the AirMule. It's an unmanned VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft, which features lift rotors that are safely enclosed inside its body. Although we first heard about it two years ago, the prototype just recently made its first untethered test flight.

The AirMule can be flown either by remote control or using its own autonomous control system. It's intended (among other things) for the evacuation of wounded personnel in war zones while under anti-aircraft fire, or as a maritime support aircraft on vessels too small to accommodate a regular unmanned helicopter.

While its shrouded rear propellers provide horizontal thrust, its vertical movement is controlled by internal rotors that can only be seen from directly above or below. In the current one-ton (0.9-tonne) version, a single 730-shp (shaft horsepower) Turbomeca Arriel 1D1 turboshaft engine provides all the power. Plans call for the production version to feature a more powerful Arriel 2 engine, which will produce 985 shp at take-off.

Along with the model aimed at use by the Israeli military, a variant known as the Cormorant is being developed for other markets. It will reportedly be able to carry a payload of 440 kg (970 lb) for a distance of 300 km (186 miles), reaching a top speed of 100 knots (185 km/h or 115 mph) and a maximum altitude of 18,000 feet (5,486 m).

The untethered test flight took place on Dec. 30th, at the Megiddo airfield in northern Israel. Planned subsequent flights will demonstrate the AirMule's autonomous cargo delivery capabilities, along with its ability to fly beyond-line-of-sight along a path in a nearby wooded area.

Meanwhile, sister company Metro Skyways is looking into applying the technology to manned "car-sized" civilian applications. In other words, the SkyMule may ultimately pave the way for that flying car we've all been waiting for.

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