DARPA to investigate the potential of airborne aircraft carriers

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Large military aircraft, such as the C-130 transport pictured above, could be converted to launch and recover multiple UAVs (Photo: Shutterstock)

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DARPA has submitted a request for information on how to turn existing military aircraft into "aircraft carriers of the sky." Ideally, the successful response would allow large manned aircraft to launch and recover multiple unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), whilst requiring only minimal cost-effective adaptations to existing aircraft.

Both unmanned drones and larger manned aircraft are sent on military exercises on a daily basis, carrying out vital and often risky missions that put aircraft and their crew in danger. Both manned and drone aircraft have their own strengths and weaknesses – for example, deploying a UAV to an active war zone is more cost-effective than utilizing a manned aircraft. Furthermore, by employing drones in the field, one can limit the need to place a pilot in harm's way. However, there are also drawbacks to drone operations. For example, the current generation of UAVs lack the speed, range and endurance of their manned counterparts.

DARPA is therefore seeking suggestions on how to innovate a mixed approach, using existing and proven manned heavy aircraft such as a C-130 transport to carry, deploy and retrieve multiple UAVs. If developed, the system would combine the strengths of drone operations with the range and longevity of larger piloted aircraft, allowing for supreme mission flexibility.

"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'" states program manager Dan Patt. "We envision innovative launch and recovery concepts for new UAS designs that would couple with recent advances in small payload design and collaborative technologies."

Replies to the request for information must address key areas, providing system-level technologies and concepts that would allow for the launch and recovery of multiple drones, with the feasibility of the proposed system evidenced by modelling and simulations. The reply must also outline how existing aircraft can be modified to support the system with minimal modification costs. The successful project will then have the challenging prospect of readying its system for flight demonstrations within four years.

Source: DARPA

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