DARPA to investigate the potential of airborne aircraft carriers

DARPA to investigate the poten...
Large military aircraft, such as the C-130 transport pictured above, could be converted to launch and recover multiple UAVs (Photo: Shutterstock)
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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Large military aircraft, such as the C-130 transport pictured above, could be converted to launch and recover multiple UAVs (Photo: Shutterstock)
Large military aircraft, such as the C-130 transport pictured above, could be converted to launch and recover multiple UAVs (Photo: Shutterstock)
A DARPA illustration of the concept
A DARPA illustration of the concept

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.

A DARPA illustration of the concept
A DARPA illustration of the concept

"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

Germano Pecoraro
This is an idea of Wietnam War, whom C130 USAF carried drone "Firebee": it's easy to launch, difficult recovery (landing?) of UAVs
Chuchat Prasertkun
V-22 Osprey manned aircraft is most appropriate. And probably the most secure and also landing on the aircraft carrier .
Misti Pickles
Here's an idea to be revisited! http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Macon_(ZRS-5) Dirigibles were used nearly a century ago, and the lighter than air ships have improved a great deal since then. Loitering times for the mother ship could be extremely long since no fuel is expended in keeping it airborne.
This is not new- C-130's have already been fitted for launch&recovery of drones using a hydraulic extendable/retractable boom.
As much as C-130's cost to operate, it's not exactly cost-effective... but the military industrial complex that we all suffer from does not really care about that, do they?
Agree with Misti.
Dirigibles offer long station time with lots of lift and space for Cmd & Control & sensor systems.
Gregg Eshelman
This is an idea that goes back almost to the dawn of the air age.
I also thought about the Macon when I saw the title, but airships would address one aspect mentioned in this story. The manned cargo planes also bring speed to the equation. A C-130 cruises at 6x the top speed of an airship. Not only does the additional speed help get drones on station faster, it also makes the mothership less vulnerable. Let's face it, a big, slow airship is a sitting duck to anyone with any kind of aircraft in today's world.
Isn't this idea directly out of Russian working model ? I have seen a video clip of a Russian fighter being launched from a helicopter and landing by parachute.
Robin Colbourne
The difference between most current UAVs and the Vietnam era Ryan Firebee, is that a lot of current ones fly slower than the C-130, so would may not be strong enough for external carriage at C-130 speeds. I imagine the concept has arisen to avoid the need for a forward launch and landing point that current UAVs need near the conflict zone, and to enable delivery across countries which would not tolerate a transiting UAV without 'see and avoid' technology passing through their airspace. If speed is not an issue, one approach may be a multiple aerotow, using swarming technology to keep them apart. The towline could also supply power, fuel and hard-wired signals. The Czechs have aero towed 9 Predator-sized gliders from one towplane, so the potential is there. UAV to UAV inflight refuelling has also been done, so in-flight capture of the towline would be possible.
Robin Colbourne
Correctrion: Not wishing to cause an international incident, it was the Slovaks who did the 9 glider aerotow. Nine L-13 Blaniks and a Zlin 137t towplane.