DARPA has announced that it successfully recovered an uncrewed air vehicle while it was flying during its Gremlins program test flight conducted last month. A pair of X-61 Gremlin Air Vehicles (GAV) successfully validated their formation flying positions and safety features before one of the GAVs was utilized to demonstrate an airborne recovery to a C-130 aircraft. Lieutenant Colonel Paul Calhoun, program manager for Gremlins in the DARPA Tactical Technology Office, says the airborne recovery is the culmination of years of work and demonstrated the feasibility for safe and reliable airborne recovery.
Calhoun also says the capability is expected to be critical for future distributed air operations. For the test, the Gremlins team refurbished an X-61 vehicle and used it for a second flight within 24 working hours. Throughout four flights, the team was able to collect hours of data focusing on the performance of the air vehicle, aerodynamic interactions between the recovery bullet and the GAV, and contact dynamics for airborne retrieval.
Not everything went according to plan during the test. One of the GAVs was destroyed during flight testing. It’s unclear exactly what led to the destruction of one of the Gremlins aircraft. Calhoun said airborne recovery is complicated. The team is enjoying the success of the deployment and will get back to work analyzing data from the mission and decide on the next steps for the Gremlins technology.
The Gremlins technology successfully demonstrated the ability to safely, effectively, and reliably recover uncrewed aerial vehicles during conflict situations to expand the range and potential use of this type of vehicle. UAVs have the capability of being fitted with a variety of sensors and mission-specific payloads. The aircraft can be launched from various military aircraft and are intended to keep crewed platforms safely out of reach of enemy defenses.
The ability to recover the vehicles by air allows them to be refurbished by ground crew and ready for another mission within 24 hours. Gremlin air vehicles are being developed by Dynetics. The original idea for the Gremlins program was the ability to deploy a large number of small uncrewed air systems that will operate in a coordinated and distributed manner, providing the US military with improved operational flexibility at a price significantly lower than is possible with current all-in-one systems.
The much lower cost is particularly possible if the uncrewed systems can be retrieved for reuse while airborne. The Gremlins project envisions launching groups of unmanned air systems from fighter aircraft or other small fixed-wing platforms while the aircraft is out of reach of any adversary defenses. After the Gremlins complete their mission, a C-130 transport aircraft could retrieve them during flight and carry them home.
DARPA expects the lifetime of a Gremlins aircraft to be about 20 uses, providing cost advantages for expendable systems by reducing payload and airframe costs while providing lower costs for maintenance and each mission. The aerial vehicles used in the Gremlins proof-of-concept demonstration could be used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions as well as to deliver other non-kinetic payloads. The recent test represents the first time one of the vehicles was retrieved in-air.