DARPA’s X-61A Gremlin drone misses airborne retrieval by inches

DARPA has revealed that attempted air-recovery of three X-61A Gremlins missed success by just inches during recent tests over Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. Nine attempts to capture the drones as they flew behind a C-130 transport plane failed, and they had to parachute to earth.

Being developed by Dynetics, the X-61A Gremlins Air Vehicle is a new class of combat drone designed to augment multi-mission fighters and help keep the extremely valuable aircraft and pilots out of harm’s way.

The October test highlights a key feature of the system, which is that it’s designed to be reusable with a turnaround time of around 24 hours. The idea is that swarms of Gremlins can be launched from a wide variety of military aircraft, operate autonomously as a team to complete their mission, and then be captured in the air and returned to base for a refit.

The catch is getting the capture part to work. According to DARA, the ground tests of the system were satisfactory, but the aerodynamics in flight were more complicated than expected, causing the tests to fail at the moment of engagement as each drone flew directly behind the docking bullet trailing from the rear of the C-130.

The X-61A vehicle in flight below an Air Force C-130
The X-61A vehicle in flight below an Air Force C-130


On the plus side, autonomous formation flying positions and safety features were validated during the test and hours of data was produced, including the aerodynamic interaction between the Gremlin and the bullet. This will be used to create improved models and designs for use in tests to be conducted in the first half of 2021. The objective is to air launch four Gremlins and recover them in 30 minutes.

“We made great strides in learning and responding to technological challenges between each of the three test flight deployments to date,” says Scott Wierzbanowski, program manager for Gremlins in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “We were so close this time that I am confident that multiple airborne recoveries will be made in the next deployment. However, as with all flight testing, there are always real world uncertainties and challenges that have to be overcome.”

Source: DARPA

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