DARPA wants to launch and recover swarms of drones from a C-130

In 2009 and 2013 two companies proposed concepts for aerial firefighting that involved launching drones from motherships

Above: an artists concept of a swarm of drones launched from a C-130. Department of Defence image.

Launching drones from an aircraft is not new — that’s the definition of an air-launched cruise missile. But recovering it in mid-air on the mothership has not been done.

From the NavyTimes:

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency plans to demonstrate the ability to launch and recover swarms of drones from a C-130 sometime in 2019, according to statements by the agency and by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, one of two companies contracted to design prototype of the drones. The other is Dynetics.

Once dispatched, the drones would be outfitted with different payloads in order to accomplish an assortment of missions, to include ISR, electronic warfare, signals intelligence and even kinetic effects.

“When the [drones] complete their mission, a C-130 transport aircraft would retrieve them in the air and carry them home, where ground crews would prepare them for their next use within 24 hours,” according to DARPA.

Each drone would be capable of a remaining on station for one hour at a range of 300 nautical miles while carrying a 60-pound payload, according to General Atomics.

The company is incorporating commercial technology to drive down the cost of the [drones]. The goal is for each drone to come in under $500,000 per unit, a company representative told Defense News, a sister publication, at an August demonstration.

Two proposals with similarities to this concept have been proposed for aerial firefighting, but did not include the possibility of recovering the drones on the mothership while in flight.

In 2009 John A. Hoffman, with Fire Termination Equipment, Inc., applied for a U. S. Patent for an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that would be transported by a mothership, either internally or externally, and released near the fire. It would then be piloted remotely from either the mother ship or from the ground. After dropping retardant on the fire it would land to reload, or might be a single use aircraft and would be “destroyed in the release step”. In the latter case the UAV would be “possibly constructed of frangible material so as to crash into the fire area”.

Fire Termination Equipment concept
Fire Termination Equipment concept, from the patent application.

In 2013 we wrote about another concept, by Nitrofirex. Their UAVs would be transported in a large mothership and released through the rear cargo door. The folded wings would deploy and the aircraft would glide autonomously to the target then “automatically and with great precision” release the water or retardant. The small engine which had been idling would power the ship back to the tanker base where it would be reloaded and inserted back into a mothership. There is even a video:

If the DARPA program comes to fruition, it is hard to see how a UAV carrying 60 pounds, or about 7 gallons of retardant, could have a meaningful effect on a wildfire. We were not able to determine how many gallons the other two proposals could carry. If the UAV was scaled up to carry at least 1,000 gallons, you’re probably not going to get many of them in a C-130. However, a C-5A Galaxy might be a difference-maker. That is, if price is no object.