The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) military drone program Gremlins has been making flights for risk reduction tweaks at the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. In late July, four of its X-61A vehicles, unmanned aerial systems (UASs) known as Gremlins Air Vehicles (or just Gremlins), passed the second flight test, achieving air launch and air recovery within 30 minutes.
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“The air vehicle performed beautifully from launch through mission modes, and the consistency between the flight tests in November and July increases confidence in the X-61A,” said in a statement Scott Wierzbanowski, the Gremlins program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office.
“However, we made a decision to delay the first air recovery attempt and instead focus on key risk reduction activities to better ensure a smooth air recovery test later this year.”
DARPA's team performed a demonstration of a recovery system retrieving and stowing the air vehicles and undertook a controlled launch of a Gremlin flying for more than two hours. They also successfully performed rendezvous and autonomous formation station-keeping between the air vehicle and a C-130 at a separation of 125 feet (38 mt).
These flights are the second part of the first flight tests undertaken by DARPA in November 2019. During the first set of test flights, the agency successfully undertook a captive-carry mission, an airborne launch, and a free flight lasting more than 90 minutes.
The July flights might seem impressive but there is still more to come. As the next steps, DARPA is saying it will resume flight tests in October with the objective to recover first one, and then two, air vehicles during the same flight.
The Gremlins program will consider its tests successful when it successfully achieves the airborne recovery of four Gremlins within 30 minutes. They'll hopefully achieve this by the end of 2020. DARPA says this final demonstration will have showcased "the capability of safe, effective, and efficient air recoveries."