DARPA’s UAS Airborne Recovery Project Enters Phase Two

DARPA recently completed the first phase of its Gremlins program. Illustration courtesy of DARPA.

DARPA wants to allow a C-130 (and other aircraft, eventually) to deploy a swarm of drones and then collect them after they’ve accomplished their mission.

The effort, dubbed the Gremlins project, has just finished its first phase, in which private industry aimed to show “the feasibility of airborne UAS launch and recovery systems that would require minimal modification to the host aircraft,” in this case a C-130, said Scott Wierzbanowski in a DARPA release. Two teams—one led by Alabama’s Dynetics, Inc. and the other by California’s General Atomics—will now aim “to mature two system concepts to enable ‘aircraft in the sky’ using air-recoverable UASs that could carry various payloads,” according to the release. The 12-month long, second phase started in March and is worth up to $21 million.

The idea is to “extend” the range, flexibility, and affordability of drone operations.

In a media event, Tim Keeter, the Gremlins program chief engineer for Dynetics, explained the broad point of the program: Investigate technologies to allow a C-130 to recover a single UAV or a group of UAVs while airborne. The first phase was largely a proof-of-concept step, Keeter explained, while the third phase should result in a late 2018 demonstration of launching and recovering UAVs “on a timeline.” In the current and second phase, the teams will “complete preliminary designs” to demonstrate their first phase concepts, and aim to reduce risks by testing individual components in their systems.

As the project progresses into operations, C-130s will “ultimately” be joined by bombers and other aircraft as other potential carriers of the Gremlins, said Mark Miller, Dynetics’ Gremlins program manager.

Mike Atwood, General Atomics’ director of advanced programs, told Air Force Magazine the company’s MQ-1 and MQ-9 programs “gave them a leg up,” among other things, in the competition. Holistically, Atwood said, the Gremlins program is more than constructing new “widget tech” and more about “where we want to head as a nation” in the unmanned environment.

The approach to this project showcases heavy cooperation between government and industry, which Atwood described as a “systems engineering transformation.” In working through the first phase of the program, he said one of the highlights for General Atomics was the access to and feedback from the warfighters community, which he dubbed a “tectonic shift” from yesteryear.

“It was an unexpected amount of collaboration,” he said, noting a cultural realignment in rapid acquisitions. He also commended the ability of the government to allow for low-level decision-making, which enhanced the speed and communications for the project.

Though little is known at this point about the Gremlins themselves, DARPA is expecting them to last an average of 20 deployments.

“It’s not meant to be used a whole [lot] of times,” Keeter told reporters. The 20 is a happy marriage between affordability and efficiency, making the project’s major focuses how to retain the Gremlins post deployment and make that recovery cheap enough to be worthwhile.

As the mission capabilities of the US military are disaggregated—or moving from a single unit approach to a family-of-systems approach—units like the Gremlins will allow for more “exquisite” payloads, too, said Chris Pehrson, General Atomics’ vice president of strategic development, adding a philosophy of disaggregation is foremost in General Atomics culture.

“I don’t see Gremlins replacing larger platforms,” Pehrson told Air Force Magazine, but using these as a family of systems and getting launch and recovery as an option can really “enhance capabilities.”

DARPA is expected to choose the Gremlins’ second phase winner in early 2018.