Floating Aircraft Carriers? They're Working on It

by Chris Tognotti

If there's one thing that's been startling lately, it's the slow but steady march of military technology, which feels like it's constantly pushing us towards a new, strange, futuristic world. For example, how do you feel about airships? I'm not talking about the steampunk fantasy kind, either — DARPA wants ideas for flying aircraft carriers, just the latest high-tech dream for the military research and development agency. DARPA, for the uninitiated, stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and this isn't the first time they've hatched a plan for something that sounded a little too dramatic to be true.

Earlier this year, for example, they've handed out funding to produce a memory-storing brain implant, and have also developed gecko-inspired "Z-Man" gloves which allow soldiers to scale walls. In short, this sort of stuff is the standard for DARPA.

Obviously, all of these projects are long-term visions — while there's no telling for sure, you shouldn't expect to see militarized airships rolling through your skies anytime particularly soon. The concept is to use the floating carrier as a launchpad for a fleet of aerial drones. And as it happens, your input is desired! Obviously don't chime in unless you've got a pretty hot engineering game, but if you have any advice or ideas to dispense, they'll be accepting them through Nov. 26.

As the Washington Post details, the Air Force has weighed a similar idea before — they consulted with airplane manufacturer Boeing to find out if a commercial-style 747 could be adapted into a flying base for smaller drones stored in the cabin. In short, it sounds as if the job of getting drones from place to place is looming large on the military's mind lately, and while that's not a very reassuring thought, it does demand some top-shelf military tech know-how.

The idea is to allow drones to take off from an aerial platform positioned just outside the boundaries of a battle or conflict zone, thus cutting down on the energy they have to expend to reach their destination, and making them easier to retrieve when the work is done.

Inevitably, almost all the coverage of this project has invoked the name "Helicarrier," the enormous airship which appeared in The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier alike. In this case, however — that is to say, in the real world — the design DARPA is aiming for wouldn't be quite that awe-inspiring in terms of size. According to i09, the candidate aircraft for this project include the B-52, B-1, and C-130, all large and dynamic aircraft, but not to that dramatic extent by any stretch.

In any event, this will be a good one to keep an eye on — as with all advanced research and development, there's always a risk that it won't come together the way DARPA had hoped, but if you're not shooting for the stars, why bother?

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