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DARPA's Gremlins programme achieves first mid-air capture and recovery

DARPA and Dynetics have completed the first mid-air recovery of an X-61 Gremlins Air Vehicle. (DARPA)

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Dynetics have completed a first successful in-flight capture and recovery of an unmanned air vehicle under the agency's Gremlins programme.

A fourth round of flight tests performed last month at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, saw two X-61 Gremlin Air Vehicles (GAVs) fly in formation with a Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules before one was recovered to the aircraft.

Launched by DARPA's Tactical Technology Office in 2015, the Gremlins programme has been conceived to demonstrate the safe and reliable aerial launch and mid-air recovery of multiple low-cost reusable unmanned aerial systems from a larger โ€˜mother' aircraft. Dynetics, a subsidiary of Leidos, was downselected in April 2018 to deliver the Gremlins demonstration phase.

Dynetics' Gremlins solution involves deploying a towed, stabilised capture device below and away from a C-130 transport aircraft. The semi-autonomous X-61A GAV โ€“ supplied to Dynetics by Kratos Unmanned Systems Division โ€“ docks with the capture device. Once docked and powered off, it is raised up to the C-130 where it is mechanically secured and stowed.

Three earlier rounds of flight testing had demonstrated all safety features of the Gremlins system, validated the precision navigation system right up to contact with the towed docking device, and successfully tested safe recovery and stowage of a GAV starting from a post-dock configuration. However, no in-flight capture had been achieved.

The latest set of flight testing incorporated modifications reflecting lessons learned during the third flight-test series, undertaken in October and November 2020. Multiple attempts to receive GAVs during those trials were unsuccessful.

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