Military, Unmanned

DARPA Working on Airborne-Launch-and-Recovery, Multi-Use ‘Gremlin’ Drones

Photo courtesy of Dynetics

DARPA is progressing toward its plan to demonstrate airborne launch and recovery of multiple unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), targeted for late 2019. Now in its third and final phase, the goal for the Gremlins program is to develop a full-scale technology demonstration featuring the air recovery of multiple low-cost, reusable drones, or “gremlins.”

Safety, reliability and affordability are the key objectives for the system, which would launch groups of UAS from multiple types of military aircraft while out of range from adversary defenses. Once the gremlins complete their mission, a C-130 transport aircraft would retrieve them in the air to carry them home, where ground crews would prepare them for their next use in under a day.

“Early flight tests have given us confidence we can meet our objective to recover four gremlins in 30 minutes,” said Scott Wierzbanowski, DARPA program manager.

In addition to preliminary flight tests, the team has focused on risk reduction via extensive modeling and simulation. The team looked at how fifth-generation aircraft systems like the F-35 and F-22 respond to threats and how they could incorporate gremlins in higher-risk areas. The gremlins’ expected lifecycle of about 20 uses could provide significant cost advantages by reducing payload and airframe spending, lowering mission and maintenance costs below those of conventional platforms, which are designed to operate for decades.

The C-130 is the demonstration platform for the Gremlins program, but Wierzbanowski says the services could easily modify the system for another transport aircraft or major weapons system. Modularity has made Gremlins attractive to potential transition partners.

Gremlins also can incorporate several types of sensors up to 150 pounds, and easily integrate technologies to address different types of stakeholders and missions.

“We are exploring opportunities with several transition partners and are not committed to a single organization. Interest is strong with both the roll-on/roll-off capability of the Gremlins system — as it does not require any permanent aircraft modification -- and a wing-mounted system to provide greater flexibility to a wider range of aircraft,” said Wierzbanowski.

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