X-61A Gremlins Air Vehicle

WASHINGTON: DARPA is about to launch its second flight of its air-launched Gremlinsdrones. The test is aimed at demonstrating in-air recovery —  the ability to reel the Gremlin back aboard its mothership. Preparations began last week at Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah.

“A test previously scheduled for the spring has been delayed to this summer due to COVID-related restrictions on operations and travel,” Scott Wierzbanowski, DARPA’s Gremlins program manager, said in an email to Breaking Defense. “The test will be with a C-130, and the major objective is to demonstrate airborne recovery.”

DARPA spokesperson Jared Adams told Breaking D in a follow-up email that preparations for the test got underway last week. “We expect to report results in August, at the latest,” he said.

Gremlins is aimed at developing low-cost, reusable drone swarms for a variety of missions, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). While the services currently fly numerous drones, they tend to be either disposable one-shots (and thus unsuitable to carry expensive sensor packages) or large and very expensive. DARPA wants something relatively small, but smart and connected —  and above all, something the user can get back.

“An ability to send large numbers of small unmanned air systems (UASs) with coordinated, distributed capabilities could provide U.S. forces with improved operational flexibility at much lower cost than is possible with today’s expensive, all-in-one platforms—especially if those unmanned systems could be retrieved for reuse while airborne,” DARPA’s Gremlins webpage explains.

Initiated in 2016, DARPA says the program is named “for the imaginary, mischievous imps that became the good luck charms of many British pilots during World War II” — not the animatronic puppets featured in the 1984 comedy-horror film of the same name.

DARPA graphic

DARPA Gremlins concept

A team led by Dynetics is the contractor for Gremlin test flight demonstrations, under a Phase 3 contract worth $32.5 million granted in April 2018. Other team members are Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems (which also builds the Air Force’s Valkyrie,) Williams International, Applied Systems Engineering, Inc., Kutta Technologies, Inc., Moog Inc., Sierra Nevada Corporation, Systima Technologies, Inc., and Airborne Systems.

The first test of the Gremlins system was held this past November, with DARPA announcing the test results on Jan. 17. The X-61A Gremlins Air Vehicle (GAV) was launched from a C-130A cargo plane, which eventually could carry 16 of the drones. While DARPA deemed the test successful, the vehicle actually crashed due to a malfunctioning parachute, leaving four GAVs available for the rest of the planned tests. (A parachute, however, would not be a part of an operational system, according to DARPA.)

The concept is for the Gremlins, each of which can carry up to 150 pounds, to be caught on their way back by a mechanical arm affixed to the C-130 airframe. DARPA, however, is quick to point out that other aircraft could also be outfitted to carry the Gremlins.

“The goal for this third phase of the Gremlins program is completion of a full-scale technology demonstration series featuring the air recovery of multiple, low-cost, reusable unmanned aerial systems,” the DARPA announcement explained. “Safety, reliability, and affordability are the key objectives for the system, which would launch groups of UASs from multiple types of military aircraft while out of range from adversary defenses. Once Gremlins complete their mission, the transport aircraft would retrieve them in the air and carry them home, where ground crews would prepare them for their next use within 24 hours.”