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US warships to get plane-snatching robot arms?

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The US military has decided to spend $1.4m developing a robotic arm which will be mounted on the deck of a warship in order to pluck robot aeroplanes out of the sky, so permitting them to land safely on vessels without large flight decks.

The "SeaCatcher" system is under development by Advanced Technology & Research Corp of Maryland. It is intended to "enable safe and reliable launch and recovery of fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) on small surface combatants", according to the company. Smaller warships such as frigates usually have a helicopter pad, but not a massive aircraft-carrier style flight deck which would let fixed-wing planes take off and land.

There are already ways of launching and recovering small roboplanes from ships at sea, however. The Scan Eagle drone, already in service with the US Navy, has taken off from and been recovered safely aboard vessels even smaller than frigates - for instance a Mark V Special Operations Craft, as operated by the famous yet secretive SEAL frogman-commandoes. This involves tying down a pneumatic catapult on deck for launch, and use of the "Skyhook" system for landing, in which the Scan Eagle snares a line hanging from a 50-foot pole.

An alternative approach would be to use helicopter UAVs rather than fixed-wing: quite large ones are on offer, and indeed the US Marines plan to start using them for battlefield resupply - potentially from ship to shore as well as in land fighting - as soon as next year.

So it's possible to wonder just why the USN really needs a huge robot-arm version of the Skyhook. Well, one advocate of the SeaCatcher says:

Current approaches to fixed-wing UAS recovery, mainly nets and dangling cables, are dangerous to crew, ship and the UAS itself, manpower-intensive, and non-scalable.

The scalability point seems fair: you'd surely need something a bit more substantial than a pneumo catapult and a handheld pole to launch and recover big fixed-wing aircraft. (For instance this wild British idea once proposed for use with Harrier jumpjets at sea.)

Even so, though, overall you'd probably have to say that the SeaCatcher isn't required that urgently if at all. And in fact one does note that the person criticizing the Scan Eagle system is none other than ATR Corporation's local senator, seeking to "earmark" taxpayers' money towards a firm in his constituency.

It would seem that yesterday's $1.4m contract award was made more for porkbarrel reasons than genuinely military ones. ®

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