Following on from driving tests that wound up in December last year, the Black Knight Transformer prototype demonstrator has taken to the air for the first time. California-based Advanced Tactics, Inc., announced its vehicle, which combines the capabilities of a helicopter and an off-road vehicle, completed its first flight tests last month, being remotely piloted at an undisclosed location in Southern California.

During the test flights, the vehicle's stability and attitude were handled by the autopilot, with the ground-based human pilot only responsible for increasing or decreasing power. Although it is designed to hover at altitudes of up to 10,000 ft (3,050 m), for safety purposes altitude was limited to less than 10 ft (3 m), with outrigger landing gear attached to prevent it rolling over in the event of any mishaps. There was also an electrical cable attached to the underside of the vehicle that provided emergency shutdown capability. Turns out these precautions weren't required, with Advanced Tactics reporting the aircraft was stable, controllable, and performed as expected.

Similar to the aircraft being pursued by DARPA's Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES) program, the Black Knight is designed specifically for autonomous casualty evacuation and unmanned cargo resupply missions. While it can be flown by an onboard pilot, its unmanned capabilities are intended to keep pilots out of harm's way on dangerous missions.

The vehicle boasts eight rotors, with a high-speed computerized feedback control system managing the differential thrust between opposing sets of prop-rotors to provide stability and control. This is similar to the approach employed by small electric multicopters, with the company saying this approach is mechanically simpler and cheaper than employing an articulated rotor system like that found on conventional helicopters. This also eliminates the need for a tail-rotor or engine transmission.

To strengthen its suitability for military cargo resupply missions, the vehicle's design provides it with a large interior volume relative to its overall footprint. The company says this feature also makes it suitable for civil missions, such as package delivery and fire-fighting. Measuring 31 x 19 x 8 ft (9.5 x 5.8 x 2.5 m)(L x W x H) in flight configuration, the prototype demonstrator weighs 4,400 lb (1,995 kg).

On the ground, it can reach speeds of 70 mph (112 km/h) traveling on suspension and a drivetrain similar to those found in off-road trucks. As well as smoothing out the ride on rough terrain, the large truck tires and shocks also help soften the vehicle's landings. The modular automobile portion of the vehicle is also designed to be removed to allow for additional payload capacity, or swapped out for a boat hull or amphibious hull for water operations.

Advanced Tactics says that the successful first flight test of the Black Knight Transformer will pave the way for other future modular and roadable vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft. The company has been working on the smaller AT Panther Transformer, a "low-cost vehicle" that carries two passengers and their gear and is designed for Special Operations missions. It is also developing a modular, cargo carrying aircraft that would carry 3,500-lb (1,590-kg) payloads in detachable cargo pods. The company is currently seeking investors and pursuing US and other government commercial opportunities.

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