The RQ-21 Blackjack is a small tactical unmanned air system used by the U.S. Marine Corps. It provides forward reconnaissance using a variety of cameras and sensors, and it's built by design to be a catch and release drone. The release part is easy enough, the design allows the aircraft to launch from a pneumatic rail. But catching the drone is a bit of a challenge.
Essentially, Marines catch the RQ-21 with a dangling cord. The process looks harrowing—after all, these things cost $4 million—but the design eliminates the need for a runway so these drones can work in urban areas or even from the deck of a ship.
The Blackjack provides real-time conditions to ground troops with critical information for planning the optimum tactical maneuvers necessary to complete their mission. The aircraft measures only 16 feet wingtip to wingtip and weighs in at around 135 lbs. depending on payload. It can stay aloft for up to 16 hours, but once it's time to land, the delicate approach to recovery requires that the wingtip be trapped on a vertically stretched flexible cable, with a margin of error of only 8 feet.
In 2017 the U.S. Department of Defense to purchase four Blackjack systems. Each system comes complete with five aircraft and two ground control stations.
The Blackjack was finally declared operational and deployed to Iraq in 2016, even after many years of delays due to the lack of operational effectiveness. In 2015, a by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) stated that the system was "not operationally effective" and "not operationally suitable".
Despite that fact, the Marines are committed to using the system and recently completed training in Yuma, Arizona, as part of the Assault Weapons Tactics 3 exercise focused on conducting a noncombatant evacuation operation in an urban environment.