DARPA has performed the third series of flight tests with its unmanned X-61A Gremlins Air Vehicles (GAVs). Each of the three test vehicles flew for over two hours successfully validating all autonomous formation flying positions and safety features. Nine attempts were made at airborne retrieval of the aircraft, which involves mechanical engagement of the GAVs to the docking bullet extended from a C-130 aircraft. Due to relative movement of the C-130 and the Gremlins being more dynamic than expected, airborne retrieval was not achieved and each GAV safely parachuted to the ground.
The ultimate goal of the Gremlins program is to demonstrate air launch and air recovery of four UAVs within 30 minutes. This ability will dramatically expand the potential uses of UAVs in conflict situations. The GAVs can be equipped with a variety of sensors and other mission-specific technologies, and can be launched from various types of military aircraft, keeping those less expendable assets beyond the range of adversary defenses. After air retrieval of GAVs, they would be transported back to the ground where crews could prepare them for another mission within 24 hours.
Hours of data were collected over three flights, including aerodynamic interactions between the docking bullet and GAV. The data is currently been analyzed in order to update models and designs, and conduct additional flights and retrieval attempts in a fourth deployment in the near future.
Scott Wierzbanowski, program manager for Gremlins in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, commented: “All of our systems looked good during the ground tests, but the flight test is where you truly find how things work. We came within inches of connection on each attempt but, ultimately, it just wasn’t close enough to engage the recovery system.”
“We made great strides in learning and responding to technological challenges between each of the three test flight deployments to date. 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.”