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Recovery System for Group 3–5 UAVs for Sea-Based Operations


OUSD (R&E) CRITICAL TECHNOLOGY AREA(S): Human-Machine Interfaces; Sustainment; Trusted AI and Autonomy


OBJECTIVE: Develop a novel recovery system for arresting Group 3–5 fixed-wing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) aboard air capable ships that minimizes required deck landing area and footprint on the ship.


DESCRIPTION: The Navy needs to operate fixed-wing UAVs from ships other than aircraft carriers—a capability that, if introduced, would significantly increase lethality, ability to project force, and the range of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) [Ref 1]. A key enabler is recovery of UAVs spanning a large recovery envelope, that is, varying in weight, size, and approach velocity. The recovery system should be capable of arresting Group 3–5 [Ref 2] fixed wing UAVs (objective) or UAVs with a weight range of approximately 500–10,000 lb (454–4536 kg) (threshold), wingspan of approximately 15–70 ft (4.5–21.5 m) (threshold), and approach velocity of approximately 50–150 knots (92.6–277.8 kph) (threshold). Rotor-borne flight solutions (e.g., deploying rotors for landing, or tail-sitters) are not within the scope of this SBIR topic.


The Navy is interested in novel approaches to recovery that minimize required deck landing area and footprint on the ship. Respondents are encouraged to consider a total systems approach that includes novel flight control techniques as part of the proposed total concept. For example, solutions may consider putting the aircraft into a stall prior to capture/arrestment to reduce velocity. Solutions are not limited to a particular ship class or installation methodology. Concepts that utilize permanent installation (e.g., recovery equipment embedded within/under the flight deck) are acceptable, as are nonpermanent concepts (e.g., those temporarily attached to the top of the flight deck, above the flight deck, or extending out from the side of the ship). Non-permanent concepts should consider portability, stow-ability, and modularity, and should not impede safe movement of people, aircraft, and other equipment across the flight deck. Potentially relevant air capable ships (ACS) may include the Destroyer (DDG), Expeditionary Sea Base (ESB), Amphibious Transport Dock (also known as Landing Platform Dock [LPD]), or a new ship class or sea-based platform entirely. Relevant flight decks may be approximately 50–200 ft (15.2–61 m) long and 40–100 ft (12.2–30.5 m) wide. Solutions should consider deck dynamics and ship motion, including ship air-wake and related aerodynamics/aeromechanics, wind-over-deck, ship direction of travel, operation in sea state 5, survival in sea state 8 (including ship motion and flexure), and associated trim, list, pitch, roll, and heave requirements.


Given variable ship and aircraft sizes, concepts may be modular or include a family of systems that scale for higher and lower energy vehicles. Designs that follow a system-based approach, where the system is composed of the aircraft and recovery method, are preferred. Although the recovery system should be capable of arresting a range of UAVs, concepts that include a new, clean-sheet aircraft that integrates with a new recovery methodology are acceptable to promote compatibility between future UAVs and future UAV Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment (ALRE). In addition, solutions that provide the recovery system with initial conditions (UAV weight, velocity, approach vector) of the arrestment as the aircraft approaches, are allowable and encouraged. Strategies for collecting/sharing this information (e.g., avionics, communication between aircraft/recovery system, sensors aboard ship, etc.) are within the scope of this SBIR topic.


UAVs utilizing the recovery system may be low cost and attritable (i.e., affordable mass), potentially enabling higher risk acceptance than carrier-based, manned ALRE. Increasing automation is also desirable to minimize additional manning requirements. Solutions should take into account time for recovery and boarding rate as they will impact energy absorption and thermal/cooling requirements. A sortie rate of 25 arrestments per day per recovery system (objective) or 15 arrestments per day per recovery system (threshold) is acceptable. Military standards should be referenced for environmental factors (MIL-STD-810H [Ref 3]), electromagnetic interference (MIL-STD-461G [Ref 4]), shock (MIL-DTL-901E [Grade A] [Ref 5]), and vibration (MIL-STD-167-1A [Type 1] [Ref 6]) since the recovery system must be rugged to be viable.


In the interest of promoting ALRE that is common to multiple aircraft and multiple ships, the Navy recommends a holistic/systematic approach. In other words, although design of a launch system is not within the scope of this SBIR topic, the need for launch and recovery systems to both fit and work together on a single ship should not be ignored. Concepts should also consider pre-launch and post-recovery storage of UAVs and ALRE. Solutions that use shared equipment for launch and recovery and modular/scalable concepts will reduce overall ALRE weight, deck space, and volume. There are also potential impacts to topside weight, ship storage tradeoffs, power, and cooling water requirements driven by congruous versus incongruous designs.


PHASE I: Develop a conceptual design and provide proof-of-concept analysis in a computer simulated environment. Analysis should include both recovery system functionality and flight control dynamics. Specifically address areas of technical risk such as aircraft/recovery system interfaces and absorption of aircraft kinetic energy. The Phase I effort will include prototype plans to be developed under Phase II.


PHASE II: Provide more detailed design and digital analysis of all components, potentially including, but not necessarily limited to, mechanical, electrical/power, controls, thermal, and communications subsystems. Deliver a subscale prototype of the recovery system with adequate representation of the geometries and functioning major subsystems. Demonstrate that the prototype is capable of recovering a subscale UAV, or representative vehicle in terms of scaled size, weight, and velocity. Report results of the demonstration, including next steps, improvements required, and detailed plans for how to construct a full-scale prototype.


PHASE III DUAL USE APPLICATIONS: Design, develop, and fabricate a full-scale working prototype of the recovery system based on work completed during earlier phases. Determine a safe and effective means of testing the recovery system using aircraft-representative deadload(s) in a land-based test environment and work with relevant stakeholders to coordinate instrumentation, data collection, and metrics of success. Conduct deadload testing to validate and verify performance. If successful, plan and perform initial aircraft testing.


A recovery system (and launch system) for fixed-wing UAVs has secondary applications in the delivery, shipping and receiving, and transportation industries. Autonomous, unmanned aircraft can assist with package delivery, whether over long distances or the last mile. An efficient and effective launch and recovery solution for fixed-wing aircraft enables delivery of retail packages, food, medical equipment, and other cargo at greater speed, range, and endurance. As demonstrated by Zipline in Rwanda, fixed-wing UAVs can provide a useful solution for quickly shipping medical supplies to remote areas. In congested urban environments, replacing gas-powered delivery trucks (e.g., FedEx, UPS, and Amazon) and personally owned vehicles (e.g., DoorDash) with electric UAVs can also reduce traffic congestion and pollution. Although vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) UAVs present an alternative, they may only be viable for a limited range and present noise pollution challenges.


Expanding launch and recovery technologies to higher UAV weights can increase cargo capacity for deliveries over longer distances. Introducing ALRE allows the aircraft to take off and land over a shorter distance, reducing reliance on airports, which can decrease land area used for runways, and the time and logistics footprint associated with sending packages from a warehouse to an airport. ALRE also does not need to be situated on land or stationary structures, but could be used to launch/recover aircraft off of trucks, cars, tractor trailers, trains, ships, barges, or other aircraft. For example, a larger UAV could be launched from a warehouse; then, while in the air and near a delivery location, it could deploy a high quantity of smaller UAVs for final delivery; those smaller UAVs could be recovered by the larger UAV to return to the original warehouse, or the smaller UAVs could be recovered on land at a location near the delivery location.


Systems that meet safety requirements and have acceptable G-forces at launch and recovery could also be used for transportation of people. There is a long history of launch and recovery of manned aircraft aboard aircraft carriers; however, a system used for mass transportation would need to significantly reduce acceleration and deceleration forces to be acceptable for the general public. Some concepts may be capable of significantly reducing these forces to permit transport of people.



  1. Shugart, T. “Build all-UAV carriers.” USNI Proceedings, 143/9/1375, September 2017.
  2. Abdullah, Q. A. “Classification of the unmanned aerial systems.” Pennsylvania State, Department of Geography, 2014. https://www.
  3. “MIL-STD-810H w/Change 1: Department of Defense test method standard: Environmental engineering considerations and laboratory tests.” Department of Defense, MIL-STD-810 Working Group, 18 May 2022.
  4. “MIL-STD-461G: Department of Defense interface standard: Requirements for the control of electromagnetic interference characteristics of subsystems and equipment.” Department of Defense, U.S. Air Force, 11 December 2015).
  5. “MIL-DTL-901E: Detail specification: Shock tests, H. I. (High-Impact) shipboard machinery, equipment, and systems, requirements for.” Department of Defense, Naval Sea Systems Command, 20 June 2017.
  6. “MIL-STD-167-1A: Department of Defense test method standard: Mechanical vibrations of shipboard equipment (Type I—environmental and Type II—internally excited). Department of Defense, Naval Sea Systems Command, 2 November 2005.


KEYWORDS: Recovery; arrestment; unmanned aerial vehicle; UAV; aircraft; attritable; affordable mass


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