Somebody thought that they were a good idea.
The U.S. Air Force has assigned the X-61A designation to the Dynetics Gremlin about five months before the first scheduled flight demonstration of the UAV, which can be recovered in-flight. A Dynetics spokesperson confirmed the experimental designation on 06 August 2019 at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama.
Military air operations typically rely on large, manned, robust aircraft, but such missions put these expensive assets and their pilots at risk. While small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) can reduce or eliminate such risks, they lack the speed, range and endurance of larger aircraft. These complementary traits suggest potential benefits in a blended approach, one in which larger aircraft would carry, launch and recover multiple small UAS. Such an approach could greatly extend the range of UAS operations, enhance overall safety, and cost-effectively enable groundbreaking capabilities for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and other missions.
For decades, U.S. military air operations have relied on increasingly capable multi-function manned aircraft to execute critical combat and non-combat missions. Adversaries abilities to detect and engage those aircraft from longer ranges have improved over time as well, however, driving up the costs for vehicle design, operation and replacement.
An ability to send large numbers of small unmanned air systems (UASs) with coordinated, distributed capabilities could provide U.S. forces with improved operational flexibility at much lower cost than is possible with today’s expensive, all-in-one platforms, especially if those unmanned systems could be retrieved for reuse while airborne. So far, however, the technology to project volleys of low-cost, reusable systems over great distances and retrieve them in mid-air has remained out of reach.
To help make that technology a reality, DARPA launched the Gremlins program. The program envisions launching groups of UASs from existing large aircraft such as bombers or transport aircraft 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.
Under the Gremlin program, Defense Advanced Research Project Agency [DARPA] envisions a swarm of approximately 20 high performance unmanned aerial vehicles that are deployed by an inflight aircraft, and are later recovered, inflight, by an aircraft. DARPA planned a demonstration for 2019 of their ability to shoot out swarms of drones from larger transport aircraft and recover them mid-flight, according to a new report. The drones are part of the Gremlin program, which seeks to deploy and retrieve small unmanned aerial vehicles launched from US Air Force C-130 aircraft that are capable of flying 300 nautical miles and carrying 60 pounds of electronic equipment.
The gremlins expected lifetime of about 20 uses could provide significant cost advantages over expendable systems by reducing payload and airframe costs and by having lower mission and maintenance costs than conventional platforms, which are designed to operate for decades.