• SideArm recovering a drone (illustration).

SideArm recovering a drone (illustration). (Photo : DARPA)

SideArm, an easy to deploy mechanical arm that can both launch and retrieve unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), was successfully tested in December 2016, a far-reaching success that will immensely benefit the U.S. military.

SideArm is a joint project involving the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Aurora Flight Sciences, an American aviation and aeronautics research company based in Virginia that specializes in the design and construction of special-purpose UAVs.

Like Us on Facebook

DARPA's SideArm program intends to develop a self-contained, portable apparatus able to horizontally launch and retrieve UAVs weighing up to 408 kg (900 lbs).

In December 2016, Aurora Flight Sciences successfully tested a full-scale technology demonstration system that repeatedly captured a 180 kg Lockheed Martin Fury UAV accelerated to representative flight speeds via an external catapult. The system is capable of recovering aircraft up to 500 kg, exceeding DARPA's design objectives.

SideArm can be shipped inside a standard 20-foot shipping container for easy transport by truck, ship, rail, Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport aircraft and Boeing CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopter. The small system is designed to operate in truck-mounted, ship-mounted, and standalone/fixed-site facilities. A crew of only two to four people can set-up or stow the system in minutes.

SideArm owes its small size to combining its launch and capture equipment into a single rail that folds for transport.

Rather than using a traditional capture method that uses a net to catch the UAV, the system snags a hook on the back of the vehicle and directs the hook to travel down the rail. This approach provides slower, more constant and controlled deceleration, which is safer for the vehicle.

"SideArm aims to replicate a carrier's capability to quickly and safely accelerate and decelerate planes through a portable, low-cost kit that is mission-flexible, independent from local infrastructure, and compatible with existing and future tactical unmanned aircraft," said Graham Drozeski, DARPA program manager.

"We've demonstrated a reliable capture mechanism that can go anywhere a 20-foot container can go ... We are pleased with the progress we've made enabling a wide variety of sea- and land-based platforms with persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and strike capabilities."

SideArm is part of DARPA's individual investment in Phase 1 research for TERN, a joint program between DARPA and the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research (ONR). Now that demonstration of the capture system is complete, DARPA is working to identify potential transition partners and exploring using SideArm with other UAV platforms.