The U.S. military is moving ahead with development of a new drone that launches from a cargo plane and, at the end of its mission, can return to the same plane for a mid-air recovery.
The new Gremlin drone could support surveillance and attack missions, according to its developer, Alabama-based Dynetics. In April 2018, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded Dynetics a two-year, $40-million contract to design and build several Gremlins. The company expects to test the new drones with a C-130 mothership in late 2019.
Gremlins is part of a wide-ranging effort by DARPA and other military agencies to develop small, inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicles that can enhance the capabilities of existing warplanes.
The Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office is working on soda-can-size, single-use Perdix spy drones that launch from the flare-and-chaff dispensers on fighter jets. DARPA is working on a “flying missile rail” — in essence, a self-propelled robotic weapons pylon that can detach from a fighter while carrying its own missiles.
And in 2016 the Air Force gave San Diego-based Kratos $41 million to design a 30-foot-long, “runway-independent,” attack drone called the Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft. LCAA could launch by way of a catapult and, according to the military, should be cheap enough for fast mass-production.
Kratos already builds BQM-167, MQM-178 and BQM-177 target drones for the U.S. military, and has self-funded development of the XQ-222 attack drone. In March 2018, the Pentagon gave Kratos permission to export an armed version of the BQM-167 that it calls “Mako.” The Air Force Research Laboratories is also testing Mako as a potential robotic wingman for manned fighters.
It should come as no surprise that Dynetics tapped Kratos to provide the airframe for the Gremlin system. “Kratos will lead fabrication, structural and subsystem testing, assembly, integration and test of prototype Gremlin UAVs,” the company announced.
But the most difficult part of the Gremlin development effort is the launch-and-recovery system, a Kratos spokesperson said. Dynetics is working on a system similar to the reelable, hose-style refueling gear that’s standard on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aerial tankers.
“The Dynetics solution involves deploying a towed, stabilized capture device below and away from the C-130,” Dynetics explained in a release. “The air vehicle docks with the device much like an airborne refueling operation. Once docked and powered off, the air vehicle is raised to the C-130, where it is mechanically secured and stowed.”
The transport could reel the drone into the cargo bay or stow it underwing, Dynetics stated. If the recovery hardware works on a C-130, it should also be compatible with other aircraft, the company added.
Dynetics program manager Tim Keeter hinted that Gremlins, if they actually enter frontline service, might some day carry weapons. “The unmanned air vehicles utilized in these future operations will carry a variety of different sensors and other payloads,” Keeter said in a company release.
“The ability for a single, manned aircraft to stand off from danger yet manage multiple air vehicles equipped with sensors and other payloads lends itself well to enhanced support of tactical strike, reconnaissance/surveillance and close air support missions,” Dynetics stated.
“When they complete their mission, they return to airborne manned platforms to be recovered to a forward operating base where they can be quickly refurbished and put back into the fight. The potential to overwhelm an adversary continuously with multiple volleys is tremendous.”
- Air Force Military Deputy, Acquisition & Deputy Army PEO, Missiles & Space