Boing! New electromagnetic catapult hurls war planes into the sky

Aircraft carriers are terrifyingly high-tech machines - from the nuclear reactors that supply their power, down to the computer-controlled firing systems that defend them from attack faster than any human could react.

But the lowest-tech link in the chain has always been the Fifties-designed steam catapults used to hurl planes from the decks - until now.

A new electromagnetic catapult being trialled in the US is passing tests with flying colours - using a kinetic energy storage system that can launch a huge 26-tonne plane, then recharge in 45 seconds.

The Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System is designed to keep up with the increasing weight of today's combat planes - something previous 'steam catapults' could not keep up with

The Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System is designed to keep up with the increasing weight of today's combat planes - something previous 'steam catapults' could not keep up with

The electromagnetic 'catapult' is lighter, less complex and faster than steam catapults - an old technology that relies on building up half a tonnne of steam before each launch

The electromagnetic 'catapult' is lighter, less complex and faster than steam catapults - an old technology that relies on building up half a tonnne of steam before each launch

The Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) is designed to be lighter, easier to operate and faster than the current steam catapults - which are also in danger of being outpaced by today's faster, heavier aircraft.

Tests last week launched a 26-tonne Northrop Grumman E2-D surveillance aircraft using the technology.

Captain James Donnelly, Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment Program Office, PMA-251, program manager, said 'Each launch we do provides more data and validation of the hard work and efforts that have been put into this state-of-the-art technology.'

Steam catapults are a 50-year-old technology, invented by British engineers - the machines are big, complex and heavy, and rely on building up more than half a ton of steam before each launch.

The new electromagnetic systems are half the size and weight of steam-based systems, and require less maintenance even when launching heavy planes. The current EMALS system can launch planes at up to 200 knots - around 100mph.

Technology similar to the American EMALS electromagnetic launcher will be part of future British supercarriers - enabling them to launch large aircraft with computer-controlled precision

Technology similar to the American EMALS electromagnetic launcher will be part of future British supercarriers - enabling them to launch large aircraft with computer-controlled precision

'Newer, heavier and faster aircraft will result in launch energy requirements approaching the limits of the steam catapult, increasing maintenance on the system,' said the US Navy department behind the system.

'The system's technology allows for a smooth acceleration at both high and low speeds - and the capability for launching all current and future carrier air wing platforms from lightweight drones to heavy strike fighters.'

Britain's upcoming Queen Elizabeth class supercarriers, the first of which is due later this decade, will need EMALS technology if they are to compete.






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