Lockheed C-130 Hercules in flight

US military to begin testing airborne aircraft carriers in 2019

Image credit: Dreamstime

Darpa - the US military’s research and development arm - plans to begin testing airborne aircraft carriers which carry swarms of unmanned aerial systems (UASs) for various tasks.

This is the planned final phase of its “Gremlins” program, which aims to develop swarms of reusable drones (the ‘gremlins’) which can be launched and retrieved in mid-air. The program was named after the devious, fantastical creatures, which were blamed for sabotaging aircraft by British pilots serving in the Second World War.

The project aims to provide a cheaper alternative - reusable drones - to larger aircraft, which have higher payloads and maintenance costs.

According to Darpa, the UASs will be launched by Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft. The drones would carry various payloads for a range of tasks, such as surveillance and intelligence gathering, or electronic warfare. After the drones complete their mission, they would be retrieved while airborne and returned to a military base, where they can be prepared for a new mission as soon as the next day. The drones could be reused up to 20 times. Eventually, these drones could be deployed from stealthier, manned fighter aircraft as well as carriers.

Already, Darpa has completed the first phase of the program, which was conceptual in nature.

“The Phase 1 program showed the feasibility of airborne UAS launch and recovery systems that would require minimal modification to the host aircraft”, said Scott Wierzbanowski, Darpa program manager, in a statement.

“We’re aiming in Phase 2 to mature two system concepts to enable ‘aircraft carriers in the sky’ using air-recoverable UASs that could carry various payloads - advances that would greatly extend the range, flexibility and affordability of UAS operations for the US military,” he continued.

Darpa has confirmed that it has awarded contracts to two US-based companies – General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and Dynetics – to develop designs for prototype drones and perform in-flight risk reduction testing for the second phase of the program.

Each ‘gremlin’ is required to carry a 60lb (27kg) payload for up to an hour while flying up to 300 nautical miles (556km) from its carrier. They may be recovered by being mounted onto the fixed wings of an aircraft or by being loaded into a cargo bay.

The third phase of the program will select a contractor to build a UAS swarm for full-scale technology demonstrations in 2019.

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