The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency showed off the mid-air recovery abilities of the X-61 Gremlin Air Vehicles in October 2021. DARPA had four companies under Phase I contracts in 2016, with Dynetics eventually winning the Phase III contract in 2018.
The launch and recovery of GAVs from a C-130 Hercules was a huge win for the Gremlins program, which has been underway since 2015. The goal was to show that they could achieve a safe and reliable launch and recovery of multiple UAVs from another aircraft.
The idea went back to the 85 Goblin from the Air Force. It was launched in the air from a B-36 Peacemakerbomber using a trapeze. The Goblin would then fight off enemy planes, protecting the bomber.
The trapeze and hook would be used to bring the Goblin back into the bomber. However, the maneuver took a lot of skill for a plane that could not fly independently. The project was eventually canceled.
The X-61 Gremlins UAVs approached the idea in a new manner. The Gremlins are deployed first and will gather intel on air defenses and ground targets. This information is reported back to the manned aircraft.
Since the information is timely, the manned planes can execute strikes quickly with low-risk and high precision. They can also assess the damage before they head back to their mothership.
The Gremlins are low cost, highly effective, and have a short life span. Since they are a more affordable option to other UAVs, like the RQ-4 Global Hawk, multiple can be used simultaneously.
There are fewer battlefield loss concerns with the Gremlin swarms, and it has a turnaround time of just under 24 hours.
During the last four X-61 flights in October, the Gremlins’ capabilities were tested and verified. It was also determined that the Gremlin would be able to fly 20 missions in its lifespan.
DARPA is exploring the possibility of configuring the Gremlins to fly from other aircraft besides the C-130.
In a press release, DARPA stated, “The GAVs can be equipped with a variety of sensors and other mission-specific payloads. They can also be launched from various types of military aircraft, keeping manned platforms safely beyond the range of adversary defenses.”
The initial flight showed promising results and a step in the right direction.