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DARPA tests drones that can be dropped from planes and collected in midair

Gremlins X-61A Maiden Test Flight

Whether it’s drones that can be “grown” using chemistry in large-scale labs or dissolving drones designed to fly over enemy lines, there’s no shortage of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) innovation in military research. An ongoing project involving the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) adds one more item to the list. DARPA has been testing a new drone that can be launched from a plane, then later recovered in midair once it’s completed a mission. This is done by having the drone return to the plane and winched back on board via a special line, similar to a midair refueling.

The X-61A Gremlins Air Vehicle (GAV) drone, developed by U.S.-based company Dynetics, looks more like a winged missile than the kind of quadcopter most of us picture when we think of a drone. However, one of the abilities this gives it is an impressive flight time. In a test carried out in Utah in November 2019 (although only announced recently), the drone was deployed from a military transport in midair, and flew for 1 hour, 41 minutes. The dry run showed off the drone’s impressive capabilities, including its cold engine start and rapid wing deployment, alongside data link performance and the deployment of a special docking arm.

DARPA Gremlin drone 1

Not everything went according to plan, however. “Mechanical issues” at the end of the test stopped its parachute from deploying correctly, causing it to crash-land.

Nonetheless, DARPA’s enthusiasm seems to be far from dimmed. It will test out a deployment of four drones sometime this spring. If that goes according to plan, it could suggest how these drones might be used. They may be deployed in a group from a bomber, then sent into action — either working together to pursue one mission or pursuing separate targets. Because they are dropped from a plane, it gives them a wider range than they would ordinarily have if they had to be launched from an air base. The fact that they are reusable would also reduces the cost of deployment.

“This flight marks a historic milestone for Dynetics and the Gremlins program,” Tim Keeter, Gremlins program manager for Dynetics, said in a statement. “The GAV flew beautifully, and our command and control system kept us in total control of the GAV for the entire flight. The loss of our vehicle validates our decision to build five GAVs [for testing]; we still have four remaining.”

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