Unmanned Systems

DARPA: Pilot crews launch & recover small drones from C-130

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency will begin testing a program to launch and recover small drones from an Air Force C-130 aircraft.  DARPA’s Gremlins program deploys a group of small drones carrying a 60-pound sensor payload up to 300 nautical miles.

The drones are able to perform a range of missions, such as testing enemy air defenses and conducting ISR missions for an hour on station before returning to an Air Force C-130, developers said. A key concept of the program is extending the mission range of aircraft, while allowing manned crews to operate at safer distances.

Gremlins moves beyond existing state-of-the-art programs able which are able to launch, but not recover, swarms of mini-drones. The Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office, an initiative aimed at harnessing near-term emerging technologies for operational use, demonstrated an ability to launch small drones from the flare dispenser of an F-16. While able to blanket areas with ISR and perform significant mission-enhancing functions, they are expendable and not available for re-use.

“For decades, U.S. military air operations have relied on increasingly capable multi-function manned aircraft to execute critical combat and non-combat missions. Adversaries’ abilities to detect and engage those aircraft from longer ranges have improved over time as well,” said DARPA in a statement.

DARPA has continued its contract with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems to move Gremlins into the next phase of development, an effort which will involve initial testing and evaluations along with a Preliminary Design Review.  

The Gremlins’ expected lifetime of about 20 uses provides significant cost advantages over expendable systems by reducing payload and airframe costs and by having lower mission and maintenance costs than conventional platforms, a General Atomics statement said.

 “We see the potential for using this technology on our own Predator® B/MQ-9 Reaper® to offer our customers new mission capabilities,” said David R. Alexander, president, Aircraft Systems, GA-ASI.

The program is expected to culminate in an air launch and recovery demonstration in 2019.


About the Author

Kris Osborn is a former editor of Defense Systems.

Defense Systems Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

Terms and Privacy Policy consent

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.