Darpa Conceptualizes A Large Cargo Plane That Could Launch Drones To Spy And Attack
It’s a Hollywood sci-fi fantasy that has long eluded the Pentagon: a flying “mothership” that launches smaller aircraft.
The Pentagon’s research agency put out a request to industry this month to outline how a large cargo plane could release drones to spy on or attack an enemy and then return to the flying aircraft carrier.
The concept conjures up fantastical images from ‘The Avengers’ film and the ‘StarCraft’ videogame, with large motherships sending out smaller craft.
But there are no cloaking devices involved in this particular project.
At the moment, the Defenze Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) is not close to constructing any test planes and is merely exploring the possibility on paper.
Author Peter Singer, who has written extensively about robots and warfare said:This is the float-the-idea stage of the concept. It’s not the build-me-a-prototype stage.
In a conceptual drawing from Darpa, a cargo plane resembling a C-130 releases a squadron of drones that look similar to Predator or Reaper aircraft.
Dan Patt, the manager for the Darpa programme said: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’.
It’s not the first time US military has sought to create a carrier in the sky.
James Lewis, director of the Strategic Technologies Programme said:This idea goes back to the 1920s.If you think back to dirigibles, they used to have small aircraft, a one-man fighter, that would hook up to them.
Constructed by the US Navy in the late 1920s, the rigid airships could carry a small squadron of Sparrowhawk biplanes inside, and the planes would then launch from the dirigible after being lowered by a trapeze device.
The biplane would return by latching onto a hook on the belly of the mothership.
The US navy built two of the airships but both went down in crashes in 1930s, killing dozens of crew and spelling the end of the experiment.
The unmanned D-21 carried a camera for spy missions over China and then was supposed to release the camera for retrieval while the plane would self-destruct.
In four missions, the plane either failed to self-destruct as planned or the camera module could not be retrieved, and it was scrapped by 1971.
The flying carrier could allow the use of drones in areas where the US has no access to nearby airfields.
The technical challenge of recovering a robotic plane in mid-air remains a serious obstacle.
The exploration of a possible airborne carrier is part of a massive effort by the Pentagon to invest in cutting-edge robotic technology, as commanders are keenly aware that China, Russia, Iran and other countries are looking to build their own fleets of unmanned weapons.