After multiple attempts, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — commonly known as DARPA — has confirmed that it has successfully completed a mid-air recovery of the X-61 drone, Gremlins. While details of the test were not revealed, DARPA said that the mission was accomplished last month at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.
The Gremlins drone is a semi-autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed to carry a wide variety of payloads, including those for electronic warfare while being operated remotely. Launched from a mothership, such as the modified Hercules C-130 cargo aircraft, these drones are built to operate in swarms, offering the military a low-cost way of engaging its adversaries, without getting close to enemy lines. Therefore, the mid-air recovery of these drones is vital for them to enter service.
Earlier this year, the drones were tested by DARPA but fell inches short during the recovery phase and landed on Earth using parachutes. However, the recovery process worked perfectly this time, as it can be seen in the video below.
According to DARPA's press release, during the fourth deployment of these UAVs, two Gremlin drones were sent out autonomously and validated different flying formations and safety features. During the flight, DARPA collected data on air vehicle performance, aerodynamic interactions, and contact dynamics for airborne retrieval, after which one of the drones was successfully recovered.
Lt. Col. Paul Calhoun, DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, and manager for Gremlins program said, “This recovery was the culmination of years of hard work and demonstrates the feasibility of safe, reliable airborne recovery. Such a capability will likely prove to be critical for future distributed air operations.”
The safe and effective recovery of the drones dramatically increases the range and potential uses of the UAVs. Post recovery, the DARPA team was able to refurbish the drone for a different mission in less than 24 hours. In the future, DARPA plans to refurbish them in-flight, further increasing the utility of these low-cost options.
The other drone, however, was lost destroyed during the test, the reasons for which have not been released publicly. According to previous reports, Dynetics, which was awarded a Phase III contract to build these drones has built five prototypes, one of which was destroyed during the first flight after its parachute failed to deploy. Following the recent test flight, DARPA is now down to three Gremlin UAVs.