DARPA plans to capture, not kill, the next Chinese balloon

DARPA has officially requested proposals for a new technology that could intercept and capture the next high-altitude spy balloon.
Christopher McFadden
Image of the spy balloon from a U.S. U2 aircraft.

Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons 

The United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is seeking proposals for a way to capture high-flying spy balloons like the one that plagued the country in February this year. The Capturing Aerial Payloads to Unleash Reliable Exploitation ("Capture" for short) project would, ideally, allow US analysts to investigate the undamaged craft at leisure.

The remit for the project is to capture and recover such balloons at altitudes of around 75,000 feet (22.86 km) or below.

Capture not kill

The "Capture" system also must be able to respond to “aerial systems of interest approaching or within any US sovereign airspace” within hours of an engagement decision, the solicitation adds. The system must be capable of scaling up to respond to incursions across a vast area, ranging from Guam to Puerto Rico and from the northern tip of Alaska to American Samoa.

"Capture" focuses “on the ability to down high-altitude systems at a time and place of our choosing to minimize collateral damage, maximize [the] usefulness of the recovered payload, and minimize the cost of the response,” Kyle Woerner, DARPA’s program manager, explained to Aerospace DAILY.

"Capture" will be funded through DARPA's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, that ringfences around $150 million from DARPA's sizeable $3.8 billion budget. SBIR is designed to fund nontraditional defense companies for exploratory technologies like the one proposed. What's more, Aviation Week explained the "Capture" program will skip Phase 1 of the SBIR process and offer a direct-to-Phase 2 award. The ceiling for Phase 2 awards has been raised to $4 million with an optional $500,000 extension.

“If successful in a minimum viable program, DARPA may choose to further invest in [maturing] such a technology, often with the support of our military service partners,” explained Woerner. “DARPA does not necessarily create solutions that are ready to fully replicate and transition to the military services,” Woerner added.

“Rather, DARPA’s mission focuses on rapidly retiring the most challenging risks of a specific problem, often seeking to find a solution to the hardest aspects that inhibit the services from pursuing a program of record," he said. Companies responding to DARPA's Capture system solicitation must do so by September 21st and will undoubtedly need to overcome some tricky technical challenges.

Operating at the required altitudes is hard enough, but capturing a "non-cooperative" object simultaneously will be another interesting challenge.

Safely return to Earth

“I don’t see high-altitude reconnaissance planes with all the complexities of flying so high being able to do the task,” said Luis Pacheco, the editor of StratoCat, which tracks high-altitude balloon technology. 

“I guess you first need to get the balloon down in a non-catastrophic way to a lower altitude on which you can use conventional aircraft (i.e., C-130) to catch the remains or the deflated bag,” Pacheco said. “Another approach could be some kind of ‘harpoon’ or similar device which could make the balloon burst and at the same time hook the bag to a big parachute to lower the descent," he added.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board