Don't shoot! DARPA wants to capture future spy balloons in one piece

Being blasted with a missile and plummeting 60,000 feet can do a real number on hardware, it turns out

DARPA wants to be ready the next time a foreign spy balloon does a tour of the US, so it's launching a program to figure out how to capture one and its payload instead of simply shooting it out of the sky. 

Capturing Aerial Payloads to Unleash Reliable Exploitation, or Project CAPTURE, was announced by DARPA with the publication of a Small Business Innovation Research call for proposals for the project. 

The intention of the initiative, as its name suggests, is to develop "a prototype system to capture and recover exploitable payloads from slow speed high-altitude aerial systems," DARPA said.

In order to do so, DARPA wants proposed solutions to be able to fly as high as 75,000 feet (22,860 meters), and be able to catch "aerial systems of interest" as heavy as 1,500 lbs (680 kg). Along with snagging the floating menaces, DARPA wants the system to do so "in a manner allowing for controlled descent … in a condition maximizing the ability for technical exploitation upon recovery."

All that, and DARPA wants proposed systems to be able to respond in mere hours once an engagement decision has been made. 

The closest analog to CAPTURE is the Cold War era Fulton "Skyhook" system that saw large military aircraft like the C-130 used to snag lines on emergency rescue balloons launched from the ground by downed pilots. The balloons would be strapped to harnesses that allowed lost personnel to be recovered from the ground by in-flight aircraft - quite different from how CAPTURE would work, and nowhere near as dependent on high-altitude systems.

Still, those harnessed pilots would have to be put on the ground safely, so there may be some technology for Project participants to crib.

Why pop when you can drop?

There's no secret as to the reason DARPA wants a system to safely ground spy balloons: the Chinese spy balloon which drifted into US airspace in February was all anyone could talk about at the time, and the government is still trying to scrape the egg off its face.

"Recent incursions of US airspace demonstrated limitations of the ability to recover sensitive payloads from slow-speed high-altitude objects," DARPA said, citing both physics and the limits of current weapons systems as reasons why recovery is so much tougher than just shooting them down.

The F-22 is one of the few aircraft able to operate above 50,000 feet where surveillance balloons like to hide, but they move so fast it's hard for them to even identify or target such slow-moving objects, DARPA added. "These constraints, coupled with current technical capabilities, result in limited engagement opportunities and difficult recovery operations."

In the February Chinese balloon incident, the US government was forced to wait until the craft had passed over the entirety of the continental US before shooting it down off the coast of South Carolina, something that elicited consternation from the Biden administration's political opponents.

Investigation of the balloon's wreckage uncovered a bunch of commercially made parts with US origin strapped to the balloon, but no determination could be made whether it transmitted any information back to its handlers.

Project CAPTURE is still in its initial proposal gathering stage, which is seeking designs that include existing technologies and systems wherever possible to decrease development times. Proposals are due by September 21, and at which point DARPA will begin reviewing and issuing contracts.

At that stage, CAPTURE participants will have six months to get a design in for final review, and then they’ll have just six more months to develop a working prototype, DARPA told us. ®

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