The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) aims to equip military planes with drones that can be deployed and then retrieved for reuse.
Last month, DARPA’s Gremlins project successfully flew an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) and then retrieved it into C-130 aircraft while in flight. The complex maneuver is another step toward expanding the use and range of drones in distributed air operations.
During the deployment, two X-61 Gremlin Air Vehicles (GAV) successfully validated all autonomous formation flying position and safety features before one GAV ultimately demonstrated airborne recovery to a Lockheed Martin C-130.
The flight tests at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah validated all autonomous formation flying positions and safety features of the X-61 system. During the demonstration, the team refurbished an X-61 vehicle and conducted a second flight within 24 working hours – this process could be repeated up to 20 times per drone. The team collected many hours of data over four flights, including air vehicle performance, aerodynamic interactions between the recovery bullet and GAV, and contact dynamics for airborne retrieval. However, unfortunately, one GAV was destroyed during the flight tests.
“This recovery was the culmination of years of hard work and demonstrated the feasibility of safe, reliable airborne recovery,” said Lt. Col. Paul Calhoun, program manager for Gremlins in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “Such a capability will likely prove to be critical for future distributed air operations.”
Safe, effective, and reliable air recoveries promise to dramatically expand unmanned air vehicles’ range and potential uses in conflict situations. The GAVs, which are being developed by aerospace company Dynetics, can be equipped with a variety of sensors and other mission-specific payloads. They can also be launched from various types of military aircraft, keeping manned platforms safely beyond the range of adversary defenses. After air retrieval, the GAVs can be refurbished by ground crews to prepare them for another mission within 24 hours.