DARPA rounds out Gremlins program with four companies to create overwhelming drone swarms

May 10, 2016
ARLINGTON, Va., 10 May 2016. Dynetics Inc. in Huntsville, Ala.; General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. in San Diego; and Lockheed Martin Corp. in Dallas have joined the Composite Engineering Inc. Unmanned Systems Division in Sacramento Calif., in a U.S. military research program that seeks to build swarms of drone aircraft.
ARLINGTON, Va., 10 May 2016.Dynetics Inc. in Huntsville, Ala.; General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. in San Diego; and the Lockheed Martin Corp. Aeronautics segment in Fort Worth, Texas, have joined the Composite Engineering Inc. Unmanned Systems Division in Sacramento Calif., in a U.S. military research program that seeks to build swarms of drone aircraft.

Officials of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., have hired the four companies for the first phase of the Gremlins program, which will rely on relatively inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in volley quantities to saturate enemy defenses.

DARPA Gremlins will use military C-130 aircraft to launch drone swarms of networked and cooperating unmanned aircraft for electronic attack and reconnaissance missions from standoff ranges, and then recover surviving drones when their missions are completed.

The DARPA Gremlins program seeks to launch swarms of small UAVs with C-130 utility aircraft, and then use other C-130 utility aircraft to recover as many of these drones as possible. The Gremlins approach would launch and recover swarms of UAVs equipped with surveillance and electronic warfare (EW) payloads from beyond enemy air defenses.

The four companies will design UAVs that are inexpensive enough so that occasional losses would not compromise the overall mission. These drones should be able to communicate and cooperate with one another, so surviving drones could assume the roles of those unmanned aircraft lost during the mission.

Related: DARPA lets research contract for Gremlins program to launch overwhelming drone swarms

DARPA researchers want to develop affordable UAVs that could be reused as many as 20 times for dangerous missions in contested air space like pre-attack reconnaissance and surveillance, as well as electronic attack to destroy or disable enemy communications, missile defenses, and battlefield networks.

These drones would be fitted with diverse payloads in volley quantities, and would have the attributes of small vehicle size, reusability, and limited vehicle design life, DARPA officials say.

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 UAVs from existing large aircraft such as bombers or transport aircraft—as well as from fighters and other small, fixed-wing aircraft.

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.

Key enabling technologies for the Gremlins program include aerial launch and aerial recovery techniques, equipment, and aircraft integration concepts; low-cost, attritable airframe designs; design for limited life; automated waveoff strategy; precision digital flight control and navigation; aerial refueling techniques; efficient small turbine engines; automated fuel tank inerting and engine shutoff; small distributed payload integration; and precision station keeping.

story continues below

DARPA is pursuing the Gremlins program in three phases: system and technology design; preliminary design; and prototype flight demonstration. This first phase of the program is expected to spend about $15.8 million among the four separate contractors.

Ultimately DARPA wants a Gremlins flight demonstration by early 2020 to show the feasibility and potential of air-launched, recoverable unmanned aircraft. Only phase-one contractors will be eligible to participate in the program's second and third phases.

The program seeks to make a fundamental shift in the notion of aerial attack. Instead of using conventional, monolithic systems to conduct missions in denied environments, DARPA wants to use several platforms with coordinated and distributed warfighting functions to saturate adversary defenses.

Related: Navy researchers developing swarms of cooperating air drones for overwhelming land and sea attacks

The idea is to use conventional aircraft hosts to transport and launch a volley of gremlins from stand-off ranges. Researchers want to scale-up the number of UAVs such that a loss of any individual drone is reduced as a result of the collaboration between vehicles.

Not only does the program have the potential to enable enhanced mission effectiveness in contested environments, but it also explores an approach to reduce the cost of operations dramatically.

DARPA officials envision the primary focus of the Gremlins program to be on the technical challenges of aerial launch and recovery of volley quantities of air drones.

For more information contact Composite Engineering online at www.kratosusd.com/about-kusd, or DARPA at www.darpa.mil.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Military Aerospace, create an account today!