Captain America, the Hulk and Iron Man relied on the incredible ‘Helicarrier’ to launch their planes from the air in the 2012 The Avengers film. And now, the US military is taking a leaf out of Marvel’s comic after it invited people to submit ideas for future ‘aircraft carriers in the sky.’ The hope is that these flying fortresses will someday carry, launch and recover multiple swarms of drones anywhere in the world. According to Darpa - the Pentagon’s advanced military technology research agency - military air operations typically rely on large, manned, robust aircraft. But such missions put these expensive aircraft, and their pilots, at risk. And while small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) can reduce or eliminate such risks, they lack the speed, range and endurance of larger aircraft. Darpa believes the solution is to create a flying Avengers-style platform that can rapidly carry these drones wherever needed.
‘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’,’ said Dan Patt, Darpa project manager. ‘We envision innovative launch and recovery concepts for new UAS designs that would couple with recent advances in small payload design and collaborative technologies.’ The new project, called Distributed Airborne Capabilities, is likely to use a plane similar to the B-52 Stratofortress bomber, B-1B Lancer bomber or C-130 Hercules cargo plane, according to a report by The Washington Post.
Darpa is also involved in another initiative, dubbed the Hydra Project, which is aiming to develop a network of undersea ‘motherships’, capable of deploying both underwater and aerial drones. Meanwhile, the US Air Force is developing tiny unmanned drones that will fly in swarms, hover like bees, crawl like spiders and even sneak up on unsuspecting. The Air Vehicles Directorate, a research arm of the Air Force, last year released a computer-animated video outlining the future capabilities of Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs). ‘MAVs will become a vital element in the ever-changing war-fighting environment and will help ensure success on the battlefield of the future,’ the video explained. ‘Unobtrusive, pervasive, lethal - Micro Air Vehicles, enhancing the capabilities of the future war fighter.’ Air Force officials have already produced tiny remote-control prototypes - but they consume so much power that can only operate for a few minutes. Researchers estimate that it will take several years of advances in battery technology to make the designs feasible.
MILITARY DRONES COULD SOON MAKE THEIR OWN DECISIONS
Drones that can choose to deviate from a set mission and hunt in ‘swarms’ could be patrolling skies within the next 25 years, according to a recent roadmap. Unmanned aircraft carrying stronger chemical weapons could also be on the horizon, the US Department of Defence (DoD) revealed in its Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap. While the document sets out plans for unmanned maritime, land and air vehicles, there is a lot of focus on the future capability of controversial drones, which, if the plans come to fruition, could deviate from mission commands set by humans if they spot a better target. The DoD’s roadmap also features plans for deadly ‘swarms’ of drone-bombs that are launched from an unmanned ‘mothership’ to circle the skies while a human operator searches for targets for the drones to crash into, guided by the bots’ on-board cameras.