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​Dynetics is designing new unmanned aerial vehicles for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Gremlins program, which aims to advance the concept of drone swarms in combat. Dynetics courtesy photo.

Dynetics is preparing to fly its new drone for the first time as part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Gremlins program, taking another step to prove out the futuristic concept of unmanned swarms.

In the future, a host aircraft could launch and recover multiple Gremlins unmanned aerial vehicles that spread out for strike, intelligence, or other missions, and send information back to the user via radios and data links. Dynetics is in the last phase of its competitive DARPA program and has designed a docking device that comes down from an aircraft to retrieve the small drones after they fly a mission.

Recent earthquake damage to NAWS China Lake, Calif., set back the initial flight demonstration, which was slated for September, according to Tim Keeter, the Gremlins program manager at Dynetics. Instead, the test may move to the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. Keeter said it could be rescheduled to happen by the end of the year.

“It’s limited range access. They’ve got a lot of damage that’s been done,” Keeter said of China Lake. “They've got a lot of things to take care of in terms of infrastructure before they can support a flight test … like this.”

A first flight will check that the unmanned aircraft works properly and vet its aerodynamics. But rescheduling the flight test requires multiple pieces to fall into place. A C-130 must be available to launch the drone and a range must have time to accommodate a new customer.

Dynetics will first launch and control the Gremlin from the back of the C-130 in flight, Keeter said.

“We’ll deploy our parachute and our airbags to have a … gentle ground recovery, hopefully,” he said.

The next step is to pair a Learjet and a C-130 to simulate the drone docking with the larger aircraft, since the Learjet acts as a testbed for the Gremlins avionics.

“That will allow us to further check our recovery system, docking system avionics, and our safety features associated with that, because that’s a high-risk part of the operation, is getting close to that manned aircraft,” Keeter said. “We want to do that in February.”

He believes the manned C-130 and Learjet test could happen at China Lake because it won’t require some infrastructure that an unmanned flight would need. Once those aspects are proven, Dynetics will attempt to dock as many Gremlins as it can. The program’s final demonstration for DARPA must show that the system can capture four drones in under 30 minutes. Dynetics has built five UAVs so far and expects the the last demo will come before summer 2020.

These tests won’t include specialized payloads because the program focuses on the concept of launch and recovery instead of what a swarm could do once deployed. After the current phase of the DARPA program ends, Dynetics is eyeing a simulated mission that would look at payloads and some autonomy as Gremlins works toward becoming a program of record with the Air Force and other interested customers.

Keeter suggested that in the future, each drone could gain the ability to carry out missions without human control, alone or in tandem with other UAVs, even if they can’t communicate with their users.

Figuring out how many UAVs a particular user needs to accomplish its goals is one challenge of transitioning the technology to a more permanent home. Keeter said the special-operations community may need only a few at a time to act as extra sensors, while Air Combat Command could need a few dozen at once for high-intensity conflict. Dynetics has drawn up concepts for how its recovery system could fit under larger or smaller aircraft, on pylons or in rotary launchers, and Keeter pointed to the B-52 as another potential Gremlins carrier.

“The greatest utility of this capability is going to be in an [anti-access/area-denial] environment where you want to maximize the effects of distributed airborne warfare to deliver lethality … and be able to refresh those [different technologies] in an hour,” he said.

He said moving toward a program of record in fiscal 2022 is a reasonable timeline, but that those conversations aren’t happening yet. The company is also eyeing the Air Force’s Skyborg program and argued it could also potentially act as a host aircraft for Gremlins.

“We've had lots of conversations with them,” Keeter said of the Air Force. “That whole concept of using an unmanned system to multiply the force and the capability of manned systems, that's right in line with what we mean by something that enables distributed airborne warfare. … We fully intend to make sure that we're moving in that direction.”