What DARPA wants in a new recon and delivery drone

In an animated video released on September 7, a glistening silver-white drone flies towards a modest warship. The drone turns 90 degrees vertically, its rotors allowing it to descend gradually as its wings pivot at elbow joints to take up only a fraction of the ship’s helipad. Made by DARPA, the Pentagon’s blue sky projects wing, this is the vision of a new drone program called ANCILLARY, an acronym that comes, not quite naturally, from the phrase “AdvaNced airCraft Infrastructure-Less Launch And RecoverY.”

To scout and resupply the battlefields of the future, DARPA is asking companies to design compact, useful, vertical-takeoff-and-landing drones that can fly from ships or unprepared clearings. On Sept. 20, DARPA is hosting a “Proposers Day,” for traditional and non-traditional military aircraft makers to explore creating this new drone.

ANCILLARY is an X-Plane program, making it more akin to past experiments in aviation that demonstrated concepts of flight design more than outright designed aircraft for production. Inside the clunky acronym, the term “Infrastructure-Less” refers to the ability to launch and recover a drone without runways or special equipment, which would be a big boon for uncrewed aircraft. Presently, vertical takeoff or landing are small, like quadcopters, and limited in what they can carry.

Many ship-launched fixed-wing drones, which boast useful range for sea scouting, launch from rails, and land by crashing into nets or catching skyhooks on approach. That kit of rail launch and hook or net can be set up on land, but requires at minimum a truck to transport it around. It also takes up space and uses time and effort from the crew, at sea or on land, making it a more labor intensive process than simply landing.

With ANCILLARY, DARPA says it wants to develop and flight test “critical technologies required for a leap ahead in vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL), low-weight, high-payload, and long-endurance capabilities,” with the goal of building “a plane that can launch from ship flight decks and small austere land locations in adverse weather without launch and recovery equipment typically needed for these systems.”

Because this is the earliest stage of the project, the actual shape and design of the drones sought is likely to change from the concept. What is clear, at least in the video demonstration, is the kind of missions these drones will be called on to perform. 

In one scene, the ANCILLARY drone descends onto a marked-out landing zone on a road through a jungle. The landing indicators are a handful of lights, and next to them sit soldiers in dark uniforms that suggest a night mission by special operations forces. While the squad provides armed overwatch (looking out for enemies with weapons drawn), one member unloads a cylinder of supplies, and another prepares to send the drone on a return mission with a quick command on the tablet. 

The concept video shows ANCILLARY drones flying in teams, cameras and other sensors pointed below to surveil an archipelago, all while staying in communication with the small ship that launched the scouts. DARPA is service-agnostic, but the scenario described is likely for the US Navy in support of marine advances.

Another scene shows the ANCILLARY aircraft flown from behind a rough mountain to spy on a village of mud-brick houses, sending information of suspected enemy positions back to the tablet of a commander. This scenario most resembles the use of drones in the long counter-insurgency wars waged by the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, and presently parts of sub-Saharan Africa. 

The Department of Defense has already explored a range of delivery drones, from the hoverbike-derived Joint Tactical Aerial Resupply Vehicle to the tilt-body APT-70 cargo drone. Neither of these drones were designed to perform the scouting tasks like the catapult-launched and skyhook-recovered ScanEagle. Adding a vertical-takeoff ability to drones like the ScanEagle has been such a long-standing interest that in 2015, the company that makes ScanEagle released a video showing the drone launched and recovered from a giant quadcopter mothership.

Across the conceptual DARPA scenarios, the drone is a self-contained tool, taking up at most a fraction of a landing pad or the back of a single truck. Flying from anywhere, it delivers aid and intelligence to the forces that need it, with similarly minimal input expected from human operators. In the DARPA video, the hypothetical drone appears to be a tail-sitter, meaning that it performs a pivot maneuver when taking off or landing to adjust its orientation. The Space Shuttle was also a tail-sitter when it took off, but not when it landed.

If such a drone already existed, DARPA would not need to fund the research to develop one. DARPA’s bet is that the components for such a drone can be found across commercial and military design. The agency suggests ANCILLARY will take advantage of “advancements in small propulsion systems, high capacity low weight batteries, fuel cells, materials, electronics,” and affordable 3D printing, all of which could allow new, more capable drone designs.

If ANCILLARY can deliver a delivery drone, soldiers stuck in rough terrain, distant islands, small ships, or wherever else normal supply infrastructure struggles could see aid arriving by sky, thanks to the autonomous robot couriers. Designing one drone capable of such delivery, while also functioning as a useful scout and communications relay, is a hard problem, one that will likely have to lean on the capabilities developed in both military and commercial sectors. 

Watch the DARPA video, below.