We’ve written entire posts on how tricky it can be to recover a fixed-wing drone. Only the ridiculously large and expensive and over-engineered drones are able to land themselves (Predators, Global Hawks, things like that). Most other fixed-wing drones land themselves by crashing into the ground as gently as possible if they’re small and cheap, or maybe using a parachute if they’re slightly less small and cheap. Bigger fixed wing drones have to get more creative, especially if a precision landing is required (like recovery to a ship). Unmanned aircraft system developer Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary based in Bingen, Wash., has developed one of the most creative and awesome drone launch and recovery systems I’ve ever seen, using an enormous octocopter carrier aircraft.
This thing is called FLARES, for Flying Launch and Recovery System, and it’s been flying since late 2014, with the first successful launch and recovery taking place this past August. Insitu is the maker of the ScanEagle UAV and the company says FLARES can handle a “low-weight ScanEagle,” which is probably 18 to 20 kilograms in total weight: quite a payload.
The launch is mostly self-explanatory: the ScanEagle gets hauled up a few hundred feet, throttles up, and drops, quickly achieving enough lift for horizontal flight. The catch is a bit trickier: the octocopter is attached to an anchor on the ground with a long cable that it carries up into the air, acting as a sort of sky-anchor. The ScanEagle drone navigates to the cable and flies into it, catching it in a little hook at the tip of one of its wings.
Insitu tells us that pulleys on the ground anchor release tension on the cable, “letting it unwind, like a fishing reel.” This allows the cable to absorb some of the drone’s energy (although you can hear the octocopter’s engines revving up a little bit). Finally, the cable is reeled in, and both drones are recovered. It’s pretty incredible to watch on video, but according to Andrew Hayes, Director of Advanced Development for Insitu, it’s way better in person:
“There’s a tremendous amount of power in the system—the vehicle almost leaps off the ground at takeoff. It’s surprising to watch. Also, the vehicle is completely rock solid in the air throughout capture—meaning it doesn’t move at all when ScanEagle hits the line. It’s like someone bolted it into the sky.”
This version of FLARES was built primarily with commercial off-the-shelf parts. At this point, it’s mostly autonomous, although Insitu is working on making the system even more flexible, with the capability of (among other things) operating on ships. They’re also working on increasing the launch weight, which probably means a ScanEagle with a heavier payload, although watching FLARES deal with one of Insitu’s 60-kg Blackjack drones would be pretty cool, too.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.