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The Defense Advanced Research Programs Agency (DARPA) is calling for ideas on how to create a sort of airborne aircraft carrier, a system that can both launch and recover unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) mid-flight. This, according to Defense Tech.

The UAVs have limited fuel and performance. According to Air&Space Smithsonian DARPA’s recent thinking is to use a B-52 bomber to carry them to their mid-air launching point. And it would be helpful to retrieve expensive UAVs at the end of the mission.

But recovering is the hard part. Most small UAVs “land” simply by running into the ground at a shallow angle, without flaring like traditional aircraft; others are purposely designed to stall out near the ground and absorb the impact of the resulting crash. The Scan Eagle has a small hook on its wing that catches on a suspended rope.

Unmanned systems conference 2014 – Israel

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Even the mighty Predator has to be turned over from its operational pilot to a local pilot who lands it on the runway via a line-of-sight datalink. The operational pilot, who controls the Predator through a satellite link, can’t respond quickly enough to ensure a safe landing. It’s awkward.

Getting the UAV to link up with another airplane in mid-air is another challenge. It’s been done before, tested by two Global Hawks (and according to rumor by other classified military UAVs) for midair refueling, which requires a similar precision. But this is different. For one thing, even though DARPA is currently just asking industry what the options are, they are not thinking of something with Global Hawk-like performance, but rather a smaller aircraft for more tactical observations. Smaller UAVs tend to have relatively low airspeeds and operating altitudes, and would have real trouble catching up to a C-130, much less a B-52 or B-1, as the DARPA request for information suggests.