When you saw the helicarrier in The Avengers, did you think, "Hang on, that's a pretty good idea?" Well, if you did, you were not alone, because now it turns out the Pentagon is thinking of creating flying aircraft carriers.
OK, so before we go any further, I should add some caveats. The Pentagon aren't exactly planning to create a massive, quad-propeller powered, submersible, airborne fighting platform. Instead, they're eager to discover how existing aircrafts could be used to deploy drones while in the air.
What Does The Pentagon Want?
The Pentagon has asked DARPA - their advanced military technology research agency - to begin researching concepts for the airborne carrier. The main impetus for the decision seems to be the limited speed, range and durability of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) - meaning although they make a relatively effective striking tool, they cannot be used to maintain air cover over an area for an extended period. Instead, to achieve this, expensive pilot operated aircrafts need to be used.
However, if the drones can be released and collected closer to the area of operations, their limited fuel can be economized, while risk to personnel is also reduced. The Pentagon stated:
Such an approach 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.
Currently, it seems the most promising idea involves turning a large existing aircraft, such as a C-130 Hercules or C-17 Globemaster III, into a retrofitted drone launcher and recoverer. The DARPA program manager Dan Pratt added:
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.
You Can Get Involved (If You're An Expert In 'Distributed Airborne Capabilities')
To achieve this, DARPA is asking experts in the wider industry for their input. The research group has stated they are "particularly interested in engaging nontraditional contributors to help develop leap-ahead technologies in the focus areas." To facilitate this, DARPA released a Request for Information which laid out the basics of what an airborne drone carrier must do. It reads as follows:
1. 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 modeling and simulation as well as feasibility analysis, including substantiating preliminary data if available.
2. 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).
3. 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.
So, if you think you can help, break out the old coloring crayons and get doodling. Once your done, send off your designs to FBO.gov and see if your ideas are selected by DARPA. But you better get to work, the deadline for all submissions is November 26, 2014.
Does this sound like a good idea to you?