The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded Phase 1 contracts for its Gremlins programme.
The Gremlins programme has been initiated to demonstrate safe, reliable operations involving multiple air-launched, air-recoverable unmanned systems, while offering US forces enhanced operational flexibility at a much lower cost.
Composite Engineering, Dynetics, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GAAS) and Lockheed Martin have been awarded contracts to provide technical assistance for a proof-of-concept flight demonstration to validate an air recovery concept of multiple gremlins.
DARPA programme manager Dan Patt said: "We've assembled a motivated group of researchers and developers that we believe could make significant progress toward Gremlins' vision of delivering distributed airborne capabilities in a robust, responsive and affordable manner.
"These teams are exploring different, innovative approaches toward achieving this goal and are rolling up their sleeves for the hard work ahead."
The new programme will see groups of Gremlins being launched from large aircraft including bombers or transport aircraft, as well as fighters and other small, fixed-wing platforms, while those are out of range of adversary defences.
After completing the mission, a C-130 transport aircraft would retrieve and carry them home to allow ground crews to prepare them for their next use within 24 hours.
The programme will leverage on DARPA's success in developing automated aerial refuelling capabilities and its current efforts to develop advanced UAS capture systems for ships.
It plans to explore a wide range of technical areas such as the launch and recovery techniques, equipment and aircraft integration concepts, limited-life airframe designs, high-fidelity analysis, precision digital flight control as well as relative navigation and station keeping.
Moreover, it will concentrate on new operational capabilities and air operations architectures as well as the potential cost advantages.
Image: DARPA's Gremlins. Photo: courtesy of DARPA.