The US is developing a fleet of drones that can be launched into battle from a flying mothership. Once dropped into the sky above a battlefield, the drones will seek and destroy enemy targets before returning safely to the aircraft they were launched from.
Known as the ‘Gremlins’ program, it has been in development by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) since 2015.
When it was initially unveiled, Dan Patt, DARPA program manager said: “Our goal is 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.”
Dynetics and General Atomics were chosen to advance the program development into Phase 2 - maturing the design and performing in-flight risk reduction testing for the C-130-based recovery system.
Both companies are building prototypes for DARPA to review before one is chosen to develop a full-scale test that will be flown in 2019.
When Phase 2 began, General Atomics’ David R. Alexander, President of Aircraft Systems said: "GA-ASI is committed to the development of an unmanned distributed sensing and targeting system to support tomorrow's warfighter.”
"At the same time, we see the potential for using this technology on our own Predator Reaper [drones] to offer our customers new mission capabilities."
The project brief on DARPA’s website describes the project as an alternative to expensive drones with longer ranges.
It says the ability to send ‘large numbers of small unmanned air systems (UASs) with coordinated, distributed capabilities’ could provide US forces with improved capability ‘at much lower cost than is possible with today’s expensive, all-in-one platforms’.
DARPA’s ‘Gremlins’ program was set up to make the idea of these flying aircraft carriers a reality.
When the drones have completed their mission, a ‘C-130 transport aircraft would retrieve them in the air and carry them home’.
Whilst the idea of a flying aircraft carrier sounds like a far-fetched plan carved out of a comic book, the DARPA program is being touted as a major potential cost-saver.
‘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.