The plane, which has yet to be designed, could allow soldiers to gather high-quality intelligence in a better way than current small intelligence planes allow, DARPA officials said. Service members, especially in the US Navy and Marine Corps, could fly these unmanned aircraft longer and farther without much crew or configuration, and do so even on the most remote battlefields, while collecting high quality images.
Still, he’s going to face challenges that come true, especially when it comes to landing unmanned planes on rocking boats in the ocean.
“It was done on land,” said Steve Komadina, program director at DARPA in charge of the program. “But it wasn’t really done on a ship.”
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The US military has a vast arsenal of intelligence-gathering aircraft, but many have drawbacks. Aircraft that can carry bulky sensors and camera equipment needed for high-level intelligence missions are often larger and must be manned. Those that are unmanned often cannot fly farther than the eye can see and require an airstrip or large portions of a Navy bridge with several people nearby to help the plane take off and to land.
To solve this problem, DARPA aims to partner with defense contractors or commercial aircraft start-ups to create its X-Plane. DARPA officials are looking to take advantage of advances made by commercial vertical take-off and landing airlines in propulsion, low-weight batteries and low-cost manufacturing materials.
The name of the initiative is a mouthful, dubbed the Launch and Recovery X-Plane Without Advanced Aircraft Infrastructure, or ANCILLARY.
Although little is known about the appearance of the final product, the agency says it should weigh no more than 250-330 pounds, fly about 16 hours at a time, be capable of carrying gear up to 60 pounds and take off and land vertically from Navy decks or anywhere in the world that has about 320 square feet of free space, Komadina said.
The plane could carry a small bomb if needed, he added, but “that’s not really planned at the moment”.
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Next week, DARPA will invite companies to learn more about the initiative and submit project proposals. Officials estimate it will take three years to get a prototype, and about another three years before the actual aircraft can be used on the battlefield.
But several challenges remain. It will be difficult to create an aircraft design that meets DARPA specifications for weight, flight time, and flight endurance. Creating a propulsion system that provides enough power to vertically take off and land the aircraft while reducing cruise speed is difficult to master.
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Cynthia Cook, a defense industry expert and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a national security think tank, said she welcomes this DARPA program because the creation of unmanned systems better quality to gather intelligence on the battlefield prevents troops from undergoing dangerous missions.
“Unmanned systems performing these missions can mean members of the military are less at risk,” she said.