The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) and Aurora Flight Sciences have developed a new prototype system that is able to horizontally launch large drones and then retrieve them in midair, even if they are flying at top speed.

The SideArm capture system is designed to be mounted within minutes onto trucks, ships, buildings and fixed site facilities, so it is small enough to be transported in a 20ft shipping container in vehicles, as well as C-130 transport aircraft and CH-47 heavy-lift helicopters.

Instead of using a net to catch the drone, the idea is that the system catapults large unmanned aerial systems (UASs) weighing up to 900lb (408kg) into the air from a single rail, but when its time to retrieve the drone, the same rail can be used to bring the UAS to a stop over an extremely short distance.

This is achieved using a hook that snags on the back of the vehicle, which makes it possible for the drone to be brought to a halt in a slower, more controlled deceleration, which prevents damage to the drone.

The reason this is a big deal is because aircraft carriers are expensive and heavy, plus you can't always get them near to where you want to go. Being able to quickly set up and launch drones anywhere in the world would be a huge improvement and make it possible to make the best use of drones on military missions.

SideArm was successfully demonstrated in December 2016, when Aurora Flight Sciences was able to use the system to repeatedly capture a 400lb Lockheed Martin Fury drone accelerated to representative flight speeds using an external catapult system.

The system can actually retrieve aircraft weighing up to 1,100lb, and Darpa is now keen to work with partners and explore using the SideArm prototype together with other UAS platforms, with the eventual aim of mounting the system onto a wide range of US Navy ships.

"SideArm aims to replicate carriers' capability to quickly and safely accelerate and decelerate planes through a portable, low-cost kit that is mission-flexible, independent from local infrastructure and compatible with existing and future tactical unmanned aircraft," said DARPA program manager Graham Drozeski.

"We've demonstrated a reliable capture mechanism that can go anywhere a 20ft container can go —the DARPA-worthy challenge we had to overcome to make SideArm's envisioned capabilities possible. We are pleased with the progress we've made enabling a wide variety of sea- and land-based platforms with persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and strike capabilities."