aircraft carriers in the sky

The Pentagon may soon start turning planes into bona fide Helicarriers for drones. DARPA this week announced that it wants to explore making existing aircraft capable of carrying, launching, and recovering UAVs during missions. The process, it's hoped, could potentially save the Pentagon money spent deploying expensive manned air vehicles and even save lives.

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.'" In order to make this vision a reality, the Pentagon released a Request for Information (RFI) seeking proposals that can be executed in a four-year time frame. The deadline for proposals is November 26th. It's not entirely clear, however, if that's enough time for the guys at Flite Test to design a new concept of their own.

The new RFI invites short (8 pages or less) responses that must address three primary areas:

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.

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.

Technology development beyond these three areas will be considered so long as it supports the RFI's goals. DARPA is particularly interested in engaging nontraditional contributors to help develop leap-ahead technologies in the focus areas above, as well as other technologies that could potentially improve both the survivability and effectiveness of future manned and unmanned air systems.