DARPA program aims to create flying aircraft carriers, fleets of drones

An artist's rendering of the Gremlin drones. (DARPA)

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Soaring aircraft carriers, as seen on the silver screen in flicks like The Avengers, may soon some to life

DARPA’s “Gremlin” program, announced in late August, could phase out bulky, expensive “all-in-one” drone systems like the Predator with teams of smaller autonomous aircraft hosted by airborne motherships.

As drone designs have advanced in complexity and cost, so too have systems designed to shoot autonomous aircraft out of the sky. Dividing an expensive asset like a Predator drone — which comes with a price tag of $40 million per unit according to manufacturer General Atomic — into a multivehicle platform that could be launched and retrieved in mid-air could cut initial expenses and operating costs, according to DARPA projections.

The room for savings is owed to the Gremlins’ projected lifespan of 20 missions, a term that skirts the line between the long-life technology in today’s advanced drones and the one-time-use avionics that are used in many missiles.

“We wouldn’t be discarding the entire airframe, engine, avionics and payload with every mission, as is done with missiles, but we also wouldn’t have to carry the maintainability and operational cost burdens of today’s reusable systems, which are meant to stay in service for decades,” said program manager Dan Patt in a news release.

Gremlin UAVs could be launched from a variety of larger crafts, including bombers, transport ships and even some fighter jets. Upon missions completion, a Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules carrier ship would retrieve the drones and take them to undergo maintenance and re-equipping. DARPA estimates the mini fleets could be operational again within 24 hours.

The program builds on DARPA’s history of innovation with unmanned aerial technology, including leaps in autonomous mid-air refueling and efforts underway to construct a shipboard system for capturing enemy UAVs. Initial Gremlin plans do not include offensive missions, favoring flexible intel-gathering roles.

To solicit potential contractors, DARPA will hold a Proposer’s Day on Sept. 24 at their headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

“Our goal is to conduct a compelling proof-of-concept flight demonstration that could employ intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and other modular, non-kinetic payloads in a robust, responsive and affordable manner,” Patt said in the release.

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Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Department of Defense (DOD), Departments, Drones / UAS, emerging technology, Tech
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