We’ve seen gremlins wreak havoc before, and it looks as though Department of Defense’s advanced research division, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is looking to create a little bit of mayhem on its own with aerial drones. DARPA has awarded contracts to four companies — Composite Engineering, Dynetics, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and Lockheed Martin — to develop low-cost, reusable aerial drones that can be launched and potentially even be recovered mid-air upon the successful completion of a mission.
DARPA hopes that it will be able to load up these gremlins in large bombers or military cargo aircraft and deploy them en masse to blanket an area either with ordinance or camera surveillance. The drones will also be portable enough to carry on the wing pylons of fighter aircraft and other fixed-wing platforms for other mission profiles.
In the artist’s concept of a gremlin, the drone features moveable wings which would likely be locked into a retracted position, tucked alongside its body while being transported. After deployment, however, the wings would extend forward, creating the lift necessary to sustain the gremlin in flight.
“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,” writes DARPA in explaining how a gremlin would be handled following the completion of its mission.
DARPA has specified that gremlins must be reusable, but they will have a limited duty cycle before the airframes would have to be retired — this is compared to traditional drones used by the U.S. forces that have airframes that will typically be in use for decades. DARPA envisions a useful life of 20 missions before each gremlin would have to be decommissioned. However, it is still expected that the use of gremlins would still provide “significant cost advantages” over existing, larger aerial drone platforms currently being deployed.
“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,” writes DARPA program manager Dan Patt. “These teams are exploring different, innovative approaches toward achieving this goal and are rolling up their sleeves for the hard work ahead.”