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DARPA and the Navy Are Working on a Giant Drone Catcher

Catch and release.

by Samantha Cole
Feb 7 2017, 3:00pm

Launching an aircraft from the middle of the ocean typically requires a 90,000-ton naval carrier. They're not cheap to build and maintain, and still challenge aircraft engineers to find ways to launch and land a plane over short distances. 

What if there was a better way? SideArm is a joint project from the US Office of Naval Research and the Defense Advanced Research Projects agency aka DARPA. The system is designed to launch a one-ton unmanned airplane from a spot the size of a 20-foot shipping container. Two or four people can set it up to launch in minutes, the defense research company explains in a news release.

In the first test, the aft hook grabs a 400 pound test aircraft, leads it along a rail overhead, and flings it nose-up toward the ceiling, into a waiting net. DARPA demonstrates using computerized scenarios how this would look on a ground-based launch and a launch from a carrier, both with the aircraft flying free from the catapult arm and returning to be captured by a net along the same rail.

Since this test to scale exceeded their expectations by a couple hundred pounds, the team plans to up the weight bearing to 1,320 pounds, for extra-hefty military drones. It's still early days for the system, but based on the results so far, it doesn't seem like it will be long before this drone catcher enters the big leagues. 

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