Two companies are advancing concepts for small, reusable unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that can be launched in volleys and retrieved in flight by a C-130 cargo aircraft under the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) “Gremlins” program. Plans call for one team to produce a demonstration system for flight tests in 2019.
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA‑ASI) of San Diego and Dynetics, of Huntsville, Alabama, in March announced Phase 2 contracts from Darpa to refine their air vehicle and recovery-system concepts to the preliminary design stage. Early next year, Darpa will select one company for an 18-month Phase 3 to build and test its system.
Composite Engineering, a Kratos Unmanned Systems Division subsidiary, and Lockheed Martin also competed in the program’s first phase under study contracts awarded in March 2016.
In separate releases announcing the year-long Phase 2 contract awards, GA-ASI and Dynetics described Darpa’s program objectives in broad terms but provided few details about their respective concepts. GA-ASI said its Gremlins air vehicle can stay on station one hour at a range of 300 nm while carrying a modular, 60-pound payload, satisfying Darpa specifications. It is one in a line of new small UAS the MQ-9 Reaper manufacturer is developing. At the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber conference last September, GA-ASI displayed a fullscale model of a Gremlins air vehicle that would weigh 700 pounds.
Dynetics said its Phase 2 contract award is worth up to $21 million and recognizes the company’s experience in developing and rapidly fielding air-launched systems. Last summer, the U.S. Special Operations Command awarded Dynetics an $11.65 million contract to qualify and test its small glide munition (SGM), a tube-launched, 60-pound, precision-guided munition designed for carriage by unmanned aircraft or AC-130 gunships.
In a teleconference Dynetics held with reporters to discuss the Gremlins program, executives cited the SGM program and earlier work Dynetics performed on the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) conventional bomb the Air Force developed for delivery by the C-130 at the time of the Iraq War.
“This is really a niche for us in terms of rapid development and design capabilities for flight vehicles,” said Tim Keeter, Dynetics’ Gremlins program chief engineer. “It’s something we’ve been doing ever since 2003, when we did the very rapid program for the multiple ordnance air burst system, or the ‘mother of all bombs,’ and other types of systems we’ve done with increasing complexity since then. We feel that we’re large enough as a company to offer the technical depth and breadth of a large company but also the agility of a small company.”
Dynetics leads an industry team that includes Kratos-Composite Engineering as a subcontractor along with Sierra Nevada Corporation, Applied Systems Engineering, Systima Technologies, Moog, C-130 fleet operator International Air Response, engine manufacturer Williams International and parachute manufacturer Airborne Systems. Kratos, which supplies BQM-series aerial targets to the U.S. military, is “a key part of our airframe design and development, in particular when it comes to production. They’re playing a pretty heavy role in that area,” Keeter said.
Reusable Gremlins air vehicles would be deployed by manned aircraft at standoff range from air defenses, carry multiple types of payloads, operate in unison as a swarm and return to a C-130 mother ship. Technologies developed under the Darpa program will contribute to future autonomy and distributed warfare applications in which a UAS swarm can operate independently of a centralized command structure if communications are jammed or interrupted, Dynetics executives said.
“This capability will be transformative,” Keeter said. “It will eventually equip the military with the flexibility in the short term to complement current mission objectives by improving standoff [ranges] of manned aircraft, multiplying efforts to geolocate targets and even extending strike capability of different combat platforms. In the future, Gremlins will provide a necessary architecture for a lot of military objectives that you’re seeing Darpa and companies invest in in the areas of autonomy and distributed capabilities and advanced sensors.”