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Recovery and Handling of Group 3 through Group 5 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Aboard Navy’s Expeditionary Sea Base


RT&L FOCUS AREA(S): Autonomy

TECHNOLOGY AREA(S): Ground / Sea Vehicles

OBJECTIVE: Recovery and Handling of Group 3 through Group 5 fixed wing UAVs from ships other than an aircraft carrier to significantly increase lethality, project force, and increase the coverage of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets.

DESCRIPTION: The USAF’s XQ-58A Valkyrie drone aircraft is the primary fixed wing Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) planned for integration into Navy ships smaller than aircraft carriers. This SBIR topic complements a previous NAVAIR topic N202-109 entitled “Launch System for Group 3-5 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for Land-and Sea-Based Operations.” In order to reduce costs, the XQ-58A was not designed to be outfitted with landing gear. The Air Force instead uses rocket assist to launch the drone and deploys an on board parachute for recovery. The Navy under this topic is seeking an innovative approach that does not mandate the use of a parachute in order to recover the XQ-58A. Additionally, this topic needs to address the recovery of group 3 through 5 UAVSs that are outfitted with their own landing gear and equipped with a tail hook.

Operation of Group 3 through Group 5 (Group 3-5) fixed wing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) from ships other than aircraft carriers with a UAV Capture and Handling System must be capable of decelerating a fixed wing jet-powered UAV, with a wingspan of 30 feet and weight up to 6000 pounds, down from speeds up to 160 Knots Indicated Air Speed (KIAS). The placement of system components must reside, to the maximum extent possible, within the hull of the Expeditionary Sea Base (ESB) class of ships. Coordination with both Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) and Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) will be critical to understanding the available space(s) aboard ship for system placement to minimize mission impact of other functions of the ship, as well as any weight and power restrictions.

The Recovery and Handling System must be designed to not interfere with normal topside flight deck operations of the ESB and accommodate Group 3-5 UAVs with or without landing gear including the Air Force XQ-58A Valkyrie. It must also be reconfigurable such that it can be transported to conduct both ground-based operations and shipboard operations aboard an ESB. Should features of the system exceed available onboard space, a stowable sponson assembly can be envisioned to extend from either side of the ESB, serving as the UAV “runway” and interfacing directly with the capture and handling technology. The sponson may extend as far as 79 feet from the ESB and is limited to a length of 300 feet. Any design solution relying on a sponson must address impact on the ship’s performance, both pier-side and at sea, and may not interfere with basic ship or flight deck operations. Ship attitude during UAV recovery should be at a fixed bearing to optimize wind conditions and ship speed up to 15 knots as required.

The UAV Recovery and Handling System must be simple enough in design to allow for sustained operations at high sortie generation rates with a goal of a UAV capture every two minutes. The system must demonstrate high reliability with minimal maintenance down time for 24 hour/7 day surge periods. It is desired that routine maintenance should be accomplished in stride with operations. Details of the Recovery and Handling System need to include all the necessary subsystems and interface components required for installation aboard the ESB. The system must also adhere to all applicable environmental standards of the latest version of MIL-STD-810 such as shock, vibration, electromagnetic interference/emission, etc.

PHASE I: Develop a concept design to meet the objectives in the Description. Through modeling and simulation, demonstrate the feasibility of the concept in meeting Navy needs and establish that the concept can be developed into a useful product for the Navy. The Phase I Option, if exercised, will include the initial design specifications and capabilities description to build a prototype solution in Phase II.

PHASE II: Based on the results of Phase I efforts and the Phase II Statement of Work (SOW), develop and deliver a prototype. Demonstrate a 1/8 scale prototype of the Launch System using a 100-pound UAV provided by the Government, conduct a ground demonstration of the prototype Recovery and Handling System. If the land-based testing is determined to be successful, a full-scale design suitable for at-sea testing will be developed during the options of the Phase II effort. This prototype development will involve multiple ship check visits to an ESB Class ship on either the east or west coast of the United States. One full-scale prototype will be constructed for both the land-based and at-sea testing. After successful full-scale land based testing, at-sea testing will follow in further development.

PHASE III DUAL USE APPLICATIONS: The technology being developed in this proposed NAVSEA SBIR topic as well as NAVAIR SBIR N202-109 are being planned for installation aboard a ESB to enable operation of fixed wing UAVs with or without landing gear ranging in size from Group 3 through 5. In addition to being able to operate these fixed wing UAVs from ships the Marine Corps have expressed interest in having this same technology packaged in kit form, so it could be transported via ground vehicles in the field to remote areas including islands and readily assembled by troops operating in the field to enhance air domination as the USMC seek to engage our enemies in their own backyard. This type of technology could be useful for commercial UAV delivery systems in cities.

The growing industry of aerial consumer package delivery could be profoundly impacted by advances in UAV capabilities.


  1. Shugart T. Commander, “Build all-UAV Carriers”, USNI Proceedings Vol. 143/9/1,375 (September 2017).  
  2. Defense Industry Daily, “EMALS/ AAG: Electro-Magnetic Launch & Recovery for Carriers”, March 2019.  
  3. Penn State Department of Geography, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, “Classification of the Unmanned Aerial Systems”,  
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