DARPA takes first step to develop technology that launches volleys of drones


DARPA’s Gremlins program seeks to develop technologies that would let existing aircraft launch volleys of low-cost, reusable unmanned aircraft and safely retrieve them in mid-air.

Credit: DARPA

DARPA’s Gremlins program has as a goal to launch groups of drones or gremlins from large aircraft such as bombers or transports


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency this week awarded contracts to the first companies that will develop the capability to launch and recover volleys of small unmanned aircraft from one or more existing large airplanes.

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DARPA’s Gremlins program has as a goal to launch groups of drones from large aircraft such as bombers or transport planes, as well as from fighters and other small, fixed-wing platforms while those planes are out of range of adversary defenses. When the Gremlins complete their mission, a C-130 transport aircraft would retrieve them in the air and carry them home, where ground crews would prepare them for their next use within 24 hours, DARPA said.

With an expected lifetime of about 20 uses, Gremlins could fill a need between existing models of missiles and conventional aircraft, DARPA stated.

DARPA said it awarded Phase 1 contracts for its Gremlins program, which it said would deploy multiple drones simultaneously armed with a mixture of mission payloads capable of generating a variety of effects in a distributed and coordinated manner.

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The Phase 1 contracts have been awarded to four teams including:

  • Composite Engineering, Inc.
  • Dynetics, Inc.
  • General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.
  • Lockheed Martin Corporation

Phase 1 of the Gremlins program is designed to pave the way for a proof-of-concept flight demonstration that would validate an air recovery concept of multiple gremlins. The program plans to explore numerous technical areas, including:

  • Launch and recovery techniques, equipment and aircraft integration concepts
  • Low-cost, limited-life airframe designs that leverage existing technology and require only modest modifications to current aircraft
  • High-fidelity analysis, precision digital flight control, relative navigation and station keeping.

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