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A tiny, unmanned plane could land almost anywhere for military intel

The DARPA project could be a boon for U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts

A rendering of an as-yet-undesigned plane that defense officials say should weigh no more than 250 to 330 pounds, fly roughly 16 hours at a time and vertically take off and land from anywhere in the world that has roughly 320 square feet of clear space. (DARPA)

The military is looking to create a new unmanned plane that could take off and land almost anywhere in the world — a potentially major technological leap forward in government intelligence gathering.

The secretive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — or DARPA — announced last week that it is looking to build a tiny aircraft which could be used for reconnaissance missions and be remote-controlled, fly longer and vertically take off and land from tricky spaces, such as ship decks or on remote battlefields without airports.

The plane, which has yet to be designed, could let soldiers gather high-quality intelligence in a better way than the current crop of small intelligence aircraft allow, DARPA officials said. Service members, particularly in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, would be able to fly these unmanned planes longer and further without much crew or setup, and do so even on the most far-flung battlefields, all while gathering high-quality images.

Still, it’s going to face challenges becoming reality — particularly when it comes to landing unmanned planes on rocking boats in the ocean.

“That has been done on land,” said Steve Komadina, a program manager at DARPA in charge of the program. “But it hasn’t really been done on a ship.”

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The U.S. military has a large arsenal of intelligence-gathering planes, but many come with drawbacks. Planes that can carry bulky sensors and camera equipment needed for high-level intelligence missions are often larger and need to be manned. Those that are unmanned often can’t fly further the eye can see and require an airstrip or large parts of a Navy deck with several people nearby to help the plane take off and land.

To solve that issue, DARPA aims to partner with defense contractors or commercial aircraft start-ups to create its X-Plane. DARPA officials are looking to build off the advances that commercial vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft companies have made in propulsion, low-weight batteries and low-cost manufacturing materials.

The initiative’s name is a mouthful, dubbed the advanced aircraft infrastructure-less launch and recovery X-Plane, or ANCILLARY.

Though little is known about how the end product will look, the agency said it should weigh no more than 250 to 330 pounds, fly roughly 16 hours at a time, be able to carry equipment up to 60 pounds and vertically take off and land from Navy decks or anywhere in the world that has roughly 320 square feet of clear space, Komadina said.

The aircraft could carry a small bomb if needed, he added, but “that’s not really in the plans right now.”

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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 another three years or so before the actual plane could be used on the battlefield.

But several challenges remain. It will be difficult to create an aircraft design that meets DARPA’s weight, flight-time and flying-range specifications. Creating a propulsion system that delivers enough energy to vertically take off and land the aircraft while also scaling down to cruise 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 that she welcomes this DARPA program, because creating better-quality unmanned systems to gather intelligence on the battlefield prevents troops from undergoing dangerous missions.

“Unmanned systems doing these missions may mean that members of the military are less at risk,” she said.

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