Dynetics and the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) are moving onward with their Gremlins drone swarming program after flying a tiny unmanned aircraft for the first time in late November.
The X-61A flew with and released from a C-130 wing at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. This first airborne test revealed some basic capabilities, like powered flight, transitioning to stable, positioning an automatic arm from the C-130 where the drones can dock, and joining to data links.
November’s test gives the team self-assurance that the Kratos Defense-built X-61A will fly where and how it’s considered to, Dynetics Program Manager Tim Keeter told reporters Jan. 21. The flight was postponed by earthquake damage at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Calif., formerly in 2019.
“The X-61A flew as expected with no anomalies, achieving all test goals that relate to the operational system,” Dynetics said in a release. “At the completion of the mission, the engine was failed and a drogue chute successfully arranged to terminate flight.”
Dynetics, the executor for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Gremlins program, in November 2019, expertly flew its X-61A Gremlins Air Vehicle for the first time.
When trying to regain the X-61A on the ground, though, the larger, main parachute underwent a mechanical failure, and the uncrewed aerial vehicle crashed on the ground. The parachute isn’t likely to be part of the final design, but the team is still tackling the problem. Four UAVs are still working.
At the completion of the Gremlins program, Dynetics expects to fly and recover four drones in less than 30 minutes. The firm wants its aircraft to be able to drift for one hour in a 300 nautical mile radius, and to transport more than 50 pounds of payloads in its nose cone. Those demands could change—such as needing a quicker UAV—when the military takes the plan further.
DARPA wants to show the program can launch and recover “volley quantities”—maybe a dozen or more—of relatively cheap, reusable crewless aircraft. When the military services pick Gremlins up as a formal program, they can try out using the swarm for particular missions, like coordinated attacks, surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance.
The next airborne test is planned for this spring when the team will display whether the mechanical docking arm can recover and stow the UAV in flight, DARPA Program Manager Scott Wierzbanowski said.
Preferably, the X-61A will first travel under the C-130’s wake without being hit off course. Then, the UAV will tie-up with a “bullet” fixed to a cable that winds into the mechanical arm, which pulls the powered-down aircraft over the wake and into the C-130. People aboard the C-130 would put away the drone and send the retrieval system down for others.
“We’re working with both the Navy and the Air Force to continue with follow-on demonstrations and testing, and if it seems like we’re going down that track, then that is one of my No. 1 aims, is to buy one, if not two extra Gremlins air vehicles so that we can fulfil whatever the requirements are of those tasks,” like getting the drones to fly at the same time with different weapons and sensors, Wierzbanowski said.