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US Chooses Aurora Over General Atomics for Designing a Heavy Cargo Seaplane.

Aurora Flight Sciences, a subsidiary of Boeing located in Manassas, Virginia, has received an $8.3 million contract modification to continue the design of an experimental heavy cargo seaplane named Liberty Lifter for the U.S. military. This follows DARPA's decision to discontinue considering General Atomics' proposal for the program.
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Aurora concept art depicting the future of the Liberty Lifter programme. (Picture source: Aurora)

Initially, in February 2023, both Aurora and General Atomics were selected by DARPA for the Liberty Lifter Seaplane Wing-in-Ground Effect program, which was conceived to be as large and capable as the C-17 Globemaster mobility aircraft. However, the program has since been scaled down to the size of a C-130 Hercules, although future plans might scale it back up to a C-17 size depending on the success of initial demonstrations.

The Liberty Lifter is designed to operate efficiently even under difficult maritime conditions, capable of taking off and landing in Sea State 4, which includes waves up to about 8 feet, and sustaining operations in even rougher conditions.

General Atomics had proposed a unique twin-hull design intended to enhance water stability, featuring a mechanism to deploy cargo directly onto beaches. However, Aurora's approach, which recently included a redesign to relocate its floats to the wingtips and modify the tail to better accommodate the aft cargo door, stayed closer to traditional seaplane designs.

Christopher Kent, the DARPA Liberty Lifter program manager, emphasized the need for rapid progress and innovation, noting that Aurora was more closely meeting the program's stringent schedule and technical goals. While General Atomics expressed disappointment over the decision, spokesperson C. Mark Brinkley highlighted the company’s ongoing commitment to collaborate with DARPA and support the success of the Liberty Lifter program.

The DARPA Liberty Lifter program is an innovative project designed to develop a ground effect plane for strategic and tactical heavy-lift transport over long distances. The program aims to create a cost-effective seaplane that operates efficiently less than 100 feet above the water surface by leveraging ground effect, while also being capable of reaching altitudes up to 10,000 feet above mean sea level.

Envisioned to be similar in size and capacity to the C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft, the Liberty Lifter is designed to take off and land in Sea State 4 conditions and maintain operations up to Sea State 5. Major program goals include revolutionizing transport by effectively using ground effect to carry large quantities of cargo while consuming less fuel than traditional aircraft like the C-17.

Aurora, in collaboration with maritime specialists ReconCraft and naval architecture firm Gibbs and Cox, a subsidiary of Leidos, is focused on refining the design of the Liberty Lifter. A preliminary design review is scheduled for early 2025, with further development stages leading up to a first flight planned for late 2027 or early 2028. Aurora declined to comment directly on the contract modification.

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