DARPA — the Pentagon's advanced military technology research agency — is taking a page from Marvel's playbook and wants to make "aircraft carriers in the sky". They won't be Nimitz-size, of course, but they will have "to carry, launch and recover multiple unmanned air systems for a variety of missions."
According to the agency, drones are obviously a great war platform: They reduce the risk for humans and they get the job doe. The only problem is that "they lack the speed, range and endurance of larger aircraft." The military transport these drones near the theatre of action in order for them to conduct their missions, a long and cumbersome process.
They think the solution is to create a flying platform that can carry these drones anywhere in the world with enough speed. "Such an approach," they say, "could greatly extend the range of UAS operations, enhance overall safety, and cost-effectively enable groundbreaking capabilities for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and other missions."
Combined with other efforts — like long-endurance flight — it seems that DARPA is seeing good potential for a military platform in the far away future. I can imagine always-in-the-sky flying platforms which, like the helicarriers in the movie, can deploy drones anywhere in the world in no time. This call for ideas to turn a large aircraft like the C-130 into a drone aircraft carrier seems like a good seed for that, according to DARPA program manager Dan Patt:
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. We envision innovative launch and recovery concepts for new UAS designs that would couple with recent advances in small payload design and collaborative technologies.
Here's what they want for the proposal:
- System-level technologies and concepts that would enable low-cost reusable small UAS platforms and airborne launch and recovery systems that would require minimal modification of existing large aircraft types. This area includes modelling and simulation as well as feasibility analysis, including substantiating preliminary data if available.
- Potentially high-payoff operational concepts and mission applications for distributed airborne capabilities and architectures, as well as relative capability and affordability compared to conventional approaches (e.g., monolithic aircraft and payloads or missile-based approaches). DARPA hopes to leverage significant investments in the area of precision relative navigation, which seeks to enable extremely coordinated flight activities among aircraft, as well as recent and ongoing development of small payloads (100 pounds or less).
- Proposed plans for achieving full-system flight demonstrations within four years, to assist in planning for a potential future DARPA program. DARPA is interested not only in what system functionality such plans could reasonably achieve within that timeframe, but also how to best demonstrate this functionality to potential users and transition partners. These notional plans should include rough order-of-magnitude (ROM) cost and schedule information, as well as interim risk reduction and demonstration events to evaluate program progress and validate system feasibility and interim capabilities.
They say that they are "particularly interested in engaging nontraditional contributors to help develop leap-ahead technologies in the focus areas above."
Here's mine: Forget about the C-130. Get a Stratofortress and make smaller BMF drones.