Swarms of small drones launched and recovered mid-air from transport and bomber aircraft are on the Department of Defense’s dream sheet over the next few years.
The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency plans to demonstrate the ability to launch and recover swarms of drones from a C-130 sometime in 2019, according to statements by the agency and by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, one of two companies contracted to design prototype of the drones. The other is Dynetics.
The test would serve as a major leap into the next phase of testing for DARPA’s Gremlins program.
Gremlins — an initiative DARPA says is named after the imaginary, mischievous imps that became good luck charms for British pilots in WWII — is intended to give the U.S. military “improved operational flexibility at a much lower cost than is possible with today’s expensive, all-in-one platforms,” according to a DARPA statement.
Once dispatched, the drones would be outfitted with different payloads in order to accomplish an assortment of missions, to include ISR, electronic warfare, signals intelligence and even kinetic effects.
“When the gremlins complete their mission, a C-130 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,” the DARPA statement reads.
Although the technology to project volleys of cheap, reusable drones was previously out of reach for defense contractors, the Gremlins program has gradually dialed in on the possibility.
The program also seeks to one day launch the drones from smaller fixed-wing aircraft, such as fighters, while still keeping those manned platforms out of the range of enemy air defenses.
The program’s first phase concluded in March, and showed the program was not just feasible, but “would require minimal modification to the host aircraft,” said Scott Wierzbanowski, the DARPA program manager, in a statement.
During the second phase, the team aims to complete preliminary designs for full-scale technology demonstrations, Wierzbanowski added.
Each drone would be capable of a remaining on station for one hour at a range of 300 nautical miles while carrying a 60-pound payload, according to General Atomics.
The company is incorporating commercial technology to drive down the cost of the gremlins. The goal is for each drone to come in under $500,000 per unit, a company representative told Defense News, a sister publication, at an August demonstration.
The company has two options for recovery systems. The first can be mounted on the wings of an aircraft, while the second is loaded in the cargo bay. A company official declined to comment to Defense News on how many gremlins could be carried on the wing for competitive reasons.
The hope is that the gremlins could be reused up to about 20 times. In the end, the goal is for the drones to provide a cheaper alternative to larger aircraft platforms with heavier payloads and higher maintenance costs over their lifetimes.