Unmanned Systems

Plan for cheap, reusable 'Gremlin' drones moves forward

Pentagon researchers are moving ahead with a project to create relative cheap, reusable drones than can be launched from other aircraft and retrieved in-flight after performing their missions.  

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded contracts to four teams that have made proposals covering varying aspects of the program, called Gremlins. The teams are led by Composite Engineering, Dynetics, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and Lockheed Martin.

The general idea behind Gremlins is that low-cost unmanned aircraft would be launched from bombers, transport aircraft or fighters while out of the reach of enemy defenses, perform their tasks—whether strike or surveillance—and then be retrieved mid-air by a C-130 transport plane. The Gremlins would then be returned to an air base, where crews would prepare them for their next missions within 24 hours, DARPA said in an announcement.

DARPA expects that the Gremlins would last for about 20 missions, which would save money over expendable, one-time-only munitions. As well as over considerably more expensive, sophisticated UAS such as the Predator or Global Hawk, which must be maintained for decades.

“We’ve assembled a motivated group of researchers and developers that we believe could make significant progress toward Gremlins’ vision of delivering distributed airborne capabilities in a robust, responsive and affordable manner,” said Dan Patt, DARPA program manager. “These teams are exploring different, innovative approaches toward achieving this goal and are rolling up their sleeves for the hard work ahead.”

Phase 1 of the project is expected to set the stage for a proof-of-concept flight demonstration of in-air recovery, as well as explore several technical areas, DARPA said, including:

  • Launch and recovery techniques, equipment and aircraft integration concepts.
  • Low-cost, limited-life airframe designs that leverage existing technology and require only modest modifications to current aircraft.
  • High-fidelity analysis, precision digital flight control, relative navigation and station keeping.

DARPA first announced the program in November 2014, issuing a solicitation asking industry for ideas on how to use large planes such as the C-130 or B-52 bomber as “aircraft carriers” for small, inexpensive drones that otherwise couldn’t handle long-range missions. Last August, it announced the program, dubbed Gremlins after the imaginary creatures British World War II pilots invoked for motivation, as a way to increase efficiency and cut costs.

The program mirror some other cost-cutting efforts in the military, such as the Air Force’s plans to use inexpensive, expendable drones in some cases in place of more costly options such as the MQ-9 Reaper.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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