Next DoD 'Gremlins' Drone-Swarming Test Coming this Fall, General Says

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Gremlins
Photo courtesy of Dynetics

The Defense Department and its partners will hold the next demonstration of the highly anticipated drone swarming concept this fall, according to a top general.

During a question-and-answer session hosted Wednesday by Defense News, Air Force Lt. Gen. Brian Robinson, deputy commander of Air Mobility Command, revealed the next test for the program, known as Gremlins, will occur in the October to November timeframe.

In concert with Dynetics, a subsidiary of Leidos, and Kratos Defense, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has been working on the project, in which controlled drones are dropped out of cargo planes, such as the C-130 Hercules, to swarm enemy defenses ahead of fighters, ships or ground vehicles.

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"This is another example of trying to use a platform differently," Robinson said, referring to how cargo aircraft can be repurposed for other missions.

The upcoming test could be crucial, as the agencies look to add other capabilities to the swarming concept, according to Steve Fendley, president of Kratos Unmanned Systems Division, which is overseeing the drones' airframe.

"The government is adding requirements," he said in a recent interview with Military.com.

In addition to launch, flight and recovery, "they now want to rearm the Gremlins in air and redeploy [them], so they won't just do one mission now," Fendley said.

Ideally, each X-61A Gremlins Air Vehicle could fly back to the C-130 and tack on more equipment, which might include a smaller, subsonic drone or "actual weapons," he said.

The drones are an "attritable tactical unmanned aerial system that can fly a several hour-long mission," Fendley said, meaning they are cheap enough to be considered expendable.

"[The military wants] to be able to deploy and retrieve a volley quantity, which is approximately 20 of those aircraft," he said. "That will evolve this year. I think you're going to see the Gremlins really be a high-focus item for the Defense Department moving forward because it's kind of a third leg of that attritable capability set."

The other legs include the UTAP-22 "Mako" and Valkyrie drones, both made by Kratos. Each is being tested with an artificial intelligence system onboard.

Gremlins' third round of tests took place last October. DARPA said in December that, while researchers were able to validate "all autonomous formation flying positions and safety features," all nine attempts to recover the drones failed.

DARPA said its attempts "at airborne retrieval of three unmanned air vehicles … were just inches from success."

"All of our systems looked good during the ground tests, but the flight test is where you truly find how things work," said Scott Wierzbanowski, Gremlins program manager for DARPA's Tactical Technology Office. "We came within inches of connection on each attempt but, ultimately, it just wasn't close enough to engage the recovery system."

Air Force Magazine reported that the drones came within 50 feet of the docking "bullet" system meant to capture them midair, but fell short in the trials.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

Related: Air Force's 'Skyborg' AI System Flies for First Time in Mako Drone

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