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The US agency DARPA (the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) has recently announced the completion of phase 1 in its Gremlins program, which envisions swarms of low-cost, reusable unmanned aerial systems or “gremlins” as the program named them.

According to DARPA’s site, the agency aims to develop an ability so that the devices be launched and later retrieved in mid-air. Taking the program to its next stage, the agency has now awarded Phase 2 contracts to two teams, one led by Dynetics, Inc. and the other by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.

Scott Wierzbanowski, DARPA program manager explained: “Phase 1 showed the feasibility of airborne UAS launch and recovery systems that would require minimal modification to the host aircraft. We’re looking in the next phase to mature two system concepts to enable aircraft carriers in the sky using air-recoverable UASs that could carry various payloads. These types of advances would be a game-changer in aspects of range, flexibility, and affordability of UAS operations for the U.S. military.”

Gremlins Phase 2 research seeks to complete preliminary designs for full-scale technology demonstration systems and develop and perform risk-reduction tests of individual system components.

Phase 3 goals include developing one full-scale technology demonstration system and conducting flight demonstrations involving airborne launch and recovery of multiple gremlins. Flight tests are currently scheduled for 2019.

The program, named after the imaginary creatures that represented good luck charms of many British pilots during World War II, envisions launching groups of UASs from multiple types of military aircraft while out of range of adversary defenses. When the gremlins complete their mission, a 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.

The gremlins’ expected lifetime of about 20 uses could provide significant cost advantages over expendable unmanned systems by reducing payload and airframe costs and by having lower mission and maintenance costs than conventional manned platforms.