The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched the Gremlins programme, in a bid to demonstrate safe, reliable operations involving multiple air-launched, air-recoverable unmanned systems.

The new programme is aimed at offering US forces enhanced operational flexibility at a much lower cost.

DARPA programme manager Dan Patt 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."

The groups of gremlins will be 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.

Patt added: "We wouldn’t be discarding the entire airframe, engine, avionics and payload with every mission, as is done with missiles, but we also wouldn’t have to carry the maintainability and operational cost burdens of today’s reusable systems, which are meant to stay in service for decades."

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By GlobalData

The new programme will expand upon DARPA’s Request for Information (RFI) announced last year to invite novel concepts for distributed airborne capabilities.

In addition, it will be supported by DARPA’s success in developing automated aerial refuelling capabilities and its current efforts to develop advanced UAS capture systems for ships.

The programme will primarily focus on the technical challenges related with safe, reliable aerial launch and recovery of multiple unmanned air vehicles.

Moreover, it will concentrate on new operational capabilities and air operations architectures as well as the potential cost advantages.

Image: An artist’s concept of friendly Gremlins being launched by large aircraft. Photo: courtesy of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.