Test flight within inches of retrieving Gremlin UAV

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Airborne attempts to retrieve three Gremlin unmanned air vehicles with a C-130 aircraft have come within inches of success, says DARPA.

Gremlins Air Vehicle and C-130 aircraft during a test at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah (Image: DARPA)

The X-61A Gremlins Air Vehicle (GAV) program is developing an air launched and air retrieved capability that will equip GAVs with sensors and other mission-specific technologies whilst keeping ‘less expendable assets beyond the range of adversary defences’.

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According to DARPA, testing has been in progress since October and the latest flight of over two hours validated autonomous formation flying positions and safety features.

Nine attempts were made to engage the GAVs to the docking bullet extended from a C-130 aircraft, ‘but relative movement was more dynamic than expected’ and the GAVs parachuted to the ground.

In a statement, Scott Wierzbanowski, program manager for Gremlins in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, said: “All of our systems looked good during the ground tests, but the flight test is where you truly find how things work.

“We came within inches of connection on each attempt but, ultimately, it just wasn’t close enough to engage the recovery system.”

DARPA added that hours of data were collected over three flights, including aerodynamic interactions between the docking bullet and GAV, and that a fourth attempt at aerial retrieval will take place in spring 2021.

“We made great strides in learning and responding to technological challenges between each of the three test flight deployments to date,” said Wierzbanowski. “We were so close this time that I am confident that multiple airborne recoveries will be made in the next deployment. However, as with all flight testing, there are always real-world uncertainties and challenges that have to be overcome.”

The Gremlins program, which aims to demonstrate air launch/recovery of four GAVs within 30 minutes, could potentially expand the potential uses of unmanned air vehicles in conflict situations. GAVs, developed by Leidos subsidiary Dynetics, are being designed to launch from a variety of military aircraft before airborne retrieval and mission reconfiguration by ground crews.