Quadcopter drones are great for aerial photography, racing, andbacking up Lady Gagaduring the Super Bowl halftime show. Butpuny propellers don’t cut it for serious jobs, which is why military missions and humanitarian aid drops useunmanned aerial drones that resembleairplanes. Fixed-wing drones can fly further and carry more.
The trouble is, winged aircraft can’t takeoff or land vertically like quadcopters, and the hybrid machinesthat combinethe utilityof wings and the ease of quads tend to be complex and expensive. Further compounding the challenge, fixed-wing drones need runaways, which you don’t often find in the remote locations where drones are most useful.
But you don’t need a runway if you can fling them into the air and pluck them out again with, say, a web.
Aurora Flight Sciences created Project SideArmfor Darpa, the Pentagon’s research wing. The engineering brief specified a self-contained, portable apparatus able to horizontally launch and retrieve UAS of up to 900 pounds from trucks, ships and fixed ground facilities. Instead of building a makeshift runway to drop supplies in a war zone or natural disaster, you can simply bring this gadget in on a truck, train, or ship.
Launching a UAV this way is a lot like casting a stone with a slingshot. Project SideArm catches them much likeanarresting cable captures a jeton an aircraft carrier: A hook on the drone catches a cable that hangs below a metal rail. As the snagged UAV slows and swings upward, barbs on the nosecone get caught in the net.
Aurora demonstrated the system in December, catching a catapult-fired, 400-pound Lockheed Martin Fury drone. The company remains confident that’ll catch a droneweighing as much as 1,320 pounds. The whole system folds away into a 20-foot shipping container for easy transport.
Darpa’s not the only one interested in ditchingrunways. Zipline, which uses drones to distributeblood to hospitalsin rural Rwanda,also uses tail hooks and arresting wires, but flops the drone down onto a mat instead of up into a net. And German researchers recently caughta drone in a net mounted on an an Audi zipping along at43 mph—instead of bringing the drone down to the car’s velocity, they accelerated to match it. This approach still requires a road, but does makes it possible to design lighter,flexible drones that don’t require heavylanding gear.
All of this research might hasten the day when dronesdeliver stuffto your door. Rather than releasing flocks of drones from distant warehouses, Amazon could firethem from trucks closer to town—but not so close that you’ll see spooky spiders plucking them out of the air near your house.