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DARPA ANCILLIARY developing ‘infrastructure-less’ launch and recovery systems for military UAS in battlefield environment

RQ-7 Shadow is an American unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) used by the United States Army, Australian Army and Swedish Army for reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition and battle damage assessment. Launched from a trailer-mounted pneumatic catapult, it is recovered with the aid of arresting gear similar to jets on an aircraft carrier.

 

Launching the UAV from a  catapult is a relatively straightforward mechanical process. Retrieving one is not. Capturing a UAV at the end of a flight requires an operator to use a radio transmitter to send flight control commands to the UAV to fly it into a recovery device, such as a recovery net, or arresting cable device. Even with the aid of guidance methods, such as Global Position System (GPS) or Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) sensor-based navigation, skilled UAV operators require extensive training and experience to safely recover these expensive drones. Onboard a surface in motion such as a truck or ship, successful recovery is challenging.

 

Other Current Group 3 military UAS (e.g., MQ-21 Blackjack, RQ-7B Shadow, and others) also require an extensive and burdensome launch and recovery infrastructure.  These costly systems require a large logistics tail including large launchers/catapults and retrieval systems or runways, which significantly hinders expeditionary operations and limits operating in austere environments.

 

DARPA seeks to revolutionize the design of the next generation UAS and dramatically improve performance through the development and maturation of aircraft configurations and propulsion that allow for “infrastructureless” launch and recovery without compromise to long endurance flight and payload fraction.

 

Urban Air Mobility or UAM is a new system for air passenger and cargo transportation within a metropolitan area (including operations over densely populated urban areas). DOD is also looking for UAM as their future requirement personal air vehicle (PAV). To remove the need for runways, these cars will rely on vertical take-off and landing technology, known as VTOL. Sometimes long runways aren’t available to use and there is a need for an aircraft to use no runways at all.  Vertical take-off and landing VTOL technology means aircraft can theoretically take off and land almost anywhere, making them far more flexible.

 

Industry have been developing vast landscape of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) configurations research investments, and advanced controls for UAM. DARPA believes industry maturation across a broad set of UAS technologies will allow for novel designs that can be both efficient and meet the needs of the expeditionary warfighter. The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is seeking innovative launch and recovery concepts for small tactical unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) under the banner of AdvaNced airCraft Infrastructure-Less Launch And RecoverY (ANCILLARY).

 

In a Request for Information (RFI) released in  February 2020, DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office said it was seeking to “revolutionize the design of the next generation UAS and dramatically improve performance through the development and maturation of aircraft configurations and propulsion that allow for ‘infrastructureless’ launch and recovery without compromise to long endurance flight and payload fraction”

 

ANCILLARY Program

DARPA is brainstorming ideas to help frame future UAS program investments. The ultimate goal is to design, build and demonstrate a Group 3 UAS capability with an equivalent Group 1 logistics footprint (i.e., entire system can be launched/recovered by two people) while also increasing range/endurance/payload and reducing unit cost over existing systems. The UAS will be able to launch from any location (approximately 8-ft. x 8-ft. area) without launch equipment infrastructure and precisely recover in an equivalent area.

 

System design will enable launch, cruise, loiter, and recovery in challenging conditions (e.g., winds, rain, day/night, extreme temperatures, high altitude austere locations, etc.).

 

Specific technical challenges include:

 Launch and Recovery: What innovation and novel configurations will allow for VTOL launch and recovery of a Group 3 UAS (gross launch weight 150 – 250 lbs.) with only 2-4 people (set up, launch, and recover) and no infrastructure (i.e., no additional launch or recovery equipment)?

 Range and Endurance: What advanced power and propulsion technologies, and architectures will allow for VTOL capability without compromise to long range/endurance and high payload fraction capability?

 Communications: What technologies will allow for extended range line-of-sight (LOS) and beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) command, control and communications of a small Group 3 UAS?

 Aerodynamic Controllability: What new configurations, control effectors, advanced control theory, and aerodynamic modelling will solve a triad of competing objectives while operating in challenging wind or moving landing area conditions?

 

Initial concepts and performance predictions of a tactical UAS that meets the following metrics (standard day conditions, no inflight refueling or power transfer):

  1. Precision autonomous VTOL (hover capability at landing)
  2. Maximum range = 500 NM (beyond line-of-sight communications)
  3. Goal endurance at 100 NM range = 24 hours
  4. Goal maximum speed = 150 knots
  5. Loiter speed = speed for longest endurance
  6. Loiter altitude = best altitude for longest endurance (> 5,000 ft.)
  7. Maximum altitude > 15,000 ft.
  8. Multi-mission modular payload, Maximum = 60 lbs.
  9. Power for payload during loiter > 350 W

 

 

About Rajesh Uppal

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