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DARPA Wants to Turn Military Planes Into Flying Drone Aircraft Carriers

Launching and recovering drones from military aircraft in flight sounds a little crazy, which is why DARPA wants to make it real

2 min read
DARPA Wants to Turn Military Planes Into Flying Drone Aircraft Carriers
Image: DARPA

Drones. Everybody loves them, and everybody wants more of them, even if (in many cases) it’s entirely unreasonable. But let’s not get into that. No, instead we’re going to stick with something very reasonable today, and talk about how the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants someone to build a system with the “ability to launch and recover multiple small unmanned air systems from one or more types of existing large manned aircraft.” Coooool!

Here’s DARPA’s thinking: UAVs are a way to keep human pilots out of danger in military operations. That’s good. Smaller, not crazy expensive UAVs can’t fly very far or very fast or for very long. That’s bad. If you got larger aircraft (like C-130 transports) to launch and recover small UAVs, though, you could potentially get the best of both worlds.

“We want to find ways to make smaller aircraft more effective, and one promising idea is enabling existing large aircraft, with minimal modification, to become ‘aircraft carriers in the sky’,” said Dan Patt, DARPA program manager. “We envision innovative launch and recovery concepts for new UAS designs that would couple with recent advances in small payload design and collaborative technologies.”

The agency envisions a large aircraft that, with minimal modification, could launch and recover multiple small unmanned systems from a standoff distance.

Our guess is that the recovery part is what’s going to be the hardest most exciting. In addition to the C-130 (which has a minimum speed of about 115 mph), DARPA also suggests that it might be cool to develop something for the B-1B Lancer as well, which has a minimum speed of about 170 mph and looks like this:

The Lancer has reasonably spacious bomb bays underneath, and we’d love to see drones autonomously buzzing in and out of there. But at least initially, we’re guessing that the C-130 will be a bit easier to work with:

At the moment, UAVs that get recovered from moving platforms (like ships) do it by flying headlong into a rope or a net that can capture them by absorbing their momentum. Since the carrier planes won’t be able to hover, it seems likely that recoveries will have to be at speed, so perhaps something like this:

Hopefully, DARPA will have way better ideas than this to choose from. Suggestions are due on 26 November, and DARPA hopes that a full scale flight demonstration might be possible within four years.


The Conversation (0)

Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

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