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X-61A Gremlins

The U.S. Air Force assigned the X-61A designation to the Dynetics Gremlin about five months before the first scheduled flight demonstration of the UAV, which can be recovered in-flight. A Dynetics spokesperson confirmed the experimental designation on 06 August 2019 at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama.

Military air operations typically rely on large, manned, robust aircraft, but such missions put these expensive assets and their pilots at risk. While small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) can reduce or eliminate such risks, they lack the speed, range and endurance of larger aircraft. These complementary traits suggest potential benefits in a blended approachone in which larger aircraft would carry, launch and recover multiple small UAS. Such an approach could greatly extend the range of UAS operations, enhance overall safety, and cost-effectively enable groundbreaking capabilities for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and other missions.

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, however, driving up the costs for vehicle design, operation and replacement.

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 todays expensive, all-in-one platforms especially if those unmanned systems could be retrieved for reuse while airborne. So far, however, the technology to project volleys of low-cost, reusable systems over great distances and retrieve them in mid-air has remained out of reach.

To help make that technology a reality, DARPA launched the Gremlins program. The program envisions launching groups of UASs from existing large aircraft such as bombers or transport aircraft as well as from fighters and other small, fixed-wing platforms while those planes are out of range of adversary defenses. 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.

Under the Gremlin program, Defense Advanced Research Project Agency [DARPA] envisions a swarm of approximately 20 high performance unmanned aerial vehicles that are deployed by an inflight aircraft, and are later recovered, inflight, by an aircraft. DARPA planned a demonstration for 2019 of their ability to shoot out swarms of drones from larger transport aircraft and recover them mid-flight, according to a new report. The drones are part of the Gremlin program, which seeks to deploy and retrieve small unmanned aerial vehicles launched from US Air Force C-130 aircraft that are capable of flying 300 nautical miles and carrying 60 pounds of electronic equipment.

The gremlins expected lifetime of about 20 uses could provide significant cost advantages over expendable systems by reducing payload and airframe costs and by having lower mission and maintenance costs than conventional platforms, which are designed to operate for decades.

Gremlins wouldn't be discarding the entire airframe, engine, avionics and payload with every mission, as is done with missiles, but also wouldn't have to carry the maintainability and operational cost burdens of today's reusable systems, which are meant to stay in service for decades. Moreover, gremlin systems could be relatively cost-efficient if, as expected, they leverage existing technology and require only modest modifications to current aircraft.

The Gremlins program plans to explore numerous technical areas, including:

  • Launch and recovery techniques, equipment and aircraft integration concepts
  • Low-cost, limited-life airframe designs
  • High-fidelity analysis, precision digital flight control, relative navigation and station keeping

The program aims to conduct a compelling proof-of-concept flight demonstration that could employ intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and other modular, non-kinetic payloads in a robust, responsive, and affordable manner.

The Gremlins program seeks to expand upon DARPAs 2014 Request for Information (RFI) which invited novel concepts for distributed airborne capabilities. It also aims to leverage DARPAs prior success in developing automated aerial refueling capabilities, as well the Agencys current efforts to create advanced UAS capture systems for ships.

The program envisions launching groups of gremlins from large aircraft such as bombers or transport aircraft, as well as from fighters and other small, fixed-wing platforms while those planes are out of range of adversary defenses. 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.

DARPA plans to focus primarily on the technical challenges associated with safe, reliable aerial launch and recovery of multiple unmanned air vehicles. Additionally, the program will address new operational capabilities and air operations architectures as well as the potential cost advantages.

On 31 March 2016 DARPA awarded Phase 1 contracts for its Gremlins program, which seeks to develop innovative technologies and systems enabling aircraft to launch volleys of low-cost, reusable unmanned air systems (UASs) and safely and reliably retrieve them in mid-air. The Phase 1 contracts were awarded to four teams whose proposals cover a spectrum of technical approaches to this challenging mission.

The teams are led by:

  • Composite Engineering, Inc. (Roseville, Calif.)
  • Dynetics, Inc. (Huntsville, Ala.)
  • General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (San Diego, Calif.)
  • Lockheed Martin Corporation (Dallas, Tex.)

Weve 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 Gremlins program is designed to pave the way for a proof-of-concept flight demonstration that would validate an air recovery concept of multiple gremlins. The program plans to explore numerous technical areas, 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

    Current state-of-the-art manned-unmanned aerial capabilities allow pilots to launch swarms of mini-drones, but they are not able to recover them. In the future, defense contractors think the Gremlins will even launch out of the larger weaponized Predator B/MQ-9 Reaper drone.

    When the Pentagon announced the Gremlin program in 2016, the question of the type of missions the small drones would fly was left vague and open-ended. DARPA said they would "be deployed with a mixture of mission payloads capable of generating a variety of effects in a distributed and coordinated manner." Analysts have suggested the Gremlins could be used for jamming radars, allowing manned aircraft to operate at safer distances from hostile targets; testing high-risk air defense systems; weapons delivery; or intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.

    DARPA hopes for each Gremlin to survive about 20 missions. Named for the imaginary, mischievous imps that became the good luck charms of many British pilots during World War II, the program envisions launching groups of [unmanned aerial systems] from multiple types of military aircraft including bombers, transport, fighters, and small, unmanned fixed-wing platforms while out of range of adversary defenses.

    Taking the program to its next stage, in March 2017 the Agency awarded Phase 2 contracts to two teams, one led by Dynetics, Inc. (Huntsville, Ala.) and the other by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (San Diego, Calif.). The Phase 1 program showed the feasibility of airborne UAS launch and recovery systems that would require minimal modification to the host aircraft, said Scott Wierzbanowski, DARPA program manager. Were aiming in Phase 2 to mature two system concepts to enable aircraft carriers in the sky using air-recoverable UASs that could carry various payloads advances that would greatly extend the range, flexibility, and affordability of UAS operations for the U.S. military.

    Gremlins Phase 2 research seeks to complete preliminary designs for full-scale technology demonstration systems, as well as develop and perform risk-reduction tests of individual system components. Phase 3 goals include developing one full-scale technology demonstration system and conducting flight demonstrations involving airborne launch and recovery of multiple gremlins. Flight tests were initially scheduled for the 2019 timeframe.

    DARPA's Gremlins program has completed the first flight test of its X-61A vehicle. The test in late November at the U.S. Armys Dugway Proving Ground in Utah included one captive-carry mission aboard a C-130A and an airborne launch and free flight lasting just over an hour-and-a-half. 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 (UASs), or Gremlins. 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.

    The team met all objectives of the test in November, including gathering data on operation and performance, air and ground-based command and control systems, and flight termination. A parachute anomaly occurred in a recovery sequence that is specific to the test series and not part of the operational plan. The incident resulted in the loss of the test vehicle, one of five in the program. Four vehicles remain operational and available for the test series, which will continue in 2020.

    After meeting several primary objectives during risk reduction flights at the U.S. Armys Dugway Proving Ground in Utah in late July, DARPAs Gremlins program now is targeting additional tests of its X-61A vehicle later this year. The program seeks to develop and demonstrate air launch and air recovery of up to four unmanned aerial systems (UASs), known as Gremlins Air Vehicles (or just Gremlins), within 30 minutes.

    Over several days in July 2020, the technology development team completed multiple flight tests of the Gremlins air-vehicle ground and recovery systems, including demonstration of a recovery system safely retrieving and stowing the air vehicles. The team also conducted a controlled launch of a Gremlin flying for more than two hours and performed rendezvous and autonomous formation station-keeping between the air vehicle and a C-130 at a separation of 125 feet. The July flights follow the programs first flight test in November 2019, during which the program completed one captive-carry mission, and an airborne launch and free flight lasting more than 90 minutes.

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    Page last modified: 01-07-2021 17:55:23 ZULU