US Military's 'Gremlin' Program Lets Pilots Launch and Snag Drones in Midair

Artist's depiction of the gremlin drones.
An artist's depiction of what the small surveillance drones might look like. (Image credit: DARPA)

The U.S. military is developing a fairy-tale-inspired "Gremlin" program that aims to launch and retrieve drones in midair.

"Gremlins" are a swarm of drones that can be deployed from a manned aircraft, according to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the branch of the U.S. military charged with developing new and innovative technologies for the nation's war fighters. The Gremlin program will allow aircraft pilots to launch the drones as needed, and call them back to the transport plane while both are still in flight.

DARPA announced the Gremlin concept in 2015, when the agency called for proof-of-concept designs for the first phase of the project.

Now, DARPA is moving on to the second phase, which will see the continued development of two ideas, according to Scott Wierzbanowski, DARPA program manager. [Humanoid Robots to Flying Cars: 10 Coolest DARPA Projects]

"The Phase 1 program showed the feasibility of airborne [drone] launch and recovery systems that would require minimal modification to the host aircraft," Wierzbanowski said in a statement. "We’re aiming in Phase 2 to mature two system concepts to enable ‘aircraft carriers in the sky’ using air-recoverable [drones] that could carry various payloads — advances that would greatly extend the range, flexibility, and affordability of [drone] operations for the U.S. military."

Phase 2 research will focus on completing designs for full-scale Gremlin drone demonstrations. The program will eventually move to Phase 3, which will result in one full-scale system demonstration that includes the airborne launch and recovery of multiple Gremlins.

DARPA is currently scheduled to conduct flight tests for the program in 2019.

Original article on Live Science.

Kacey Deamer
Staff Writer
Kacey Deamer is a journalist for Live Science, covering planet earth and innovation. She has previously reported for Mother Jones, the Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press, Neon Tommy and more. After completing her undergraduate degree in journalism and environmental studies at Ithaca College, Kacey pursued her master's in Specialized Journalism: Climate Change at USC Annenberg. Follow Kacey on Twitter.