Gremlin Drones – the swarm drones inspired by fairy tales

Every innovation needs inspiration. When the U.S. military was in need of a new idea to make drones, they came across an unlikely source of inspiration- old Fairy Tales. LiveScience’s Elizabeth Palermo reports that the U.S. military is giving old superstitions and fairy tales a nod with a new drone program that could spy on enemies with swarms of autonomous flying robots. The US Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) recently announced the ‘Gremlin drones program’- a drone design initiative. It aims to do a better job of spotting enemy aircraft by using swarms of multiple drones.

gremlin drones
An artist’s depiction of what the small surveillance drones might look like.

 

Gremlin drones are named after the imaginary, mischievous imps that became the good luck charms of many British pilots during World War II.

What makes the Gremlin drones different from other drones?

Like their make-believe counterparts, DARPA’s mechanical gremlins will reside inside of the manned aircraft. Pilots will launch the drones as needed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance-type missions. Many small drones that can be launched by soldiers from the ground already exist. But Gremlin drones will be the first U.S. military drones that can be launched from and return to the piloted aircraft. The agency expects the drones to be inexpensive calling the design ‘low cost, limited life airframe’. In other words, the drones need to be cheap, but not so cheap that they fall apart after one use.

In addition to being low cost and small to get fit in other aircraft, the drone should be witty enough to keep themselves in the air without help from the pilot. This means they need to have high-tech tools onboard, such as advanced flight control and navigation.


In November of last year, DARPA asked for ideas for how to turn military planes into flying drone aircraft carriers. Gremlins seem to be an extension of that. With a focus on safe, reliable aerial launch and recovery of multiple UAVs. From a recent DARPA release:

The program envisions launching groups of gremlins from large aircraft such as bombers or transport aircraft, as well as from fighters and other small, fixed-wing platforms while those planes are out of range of adversary defenses. When the gremlins complete their mission, a C-130 transport aircraft would retrieve them in the air and carry them home, where ground crews would prepare them for their next use within 24 hours.

How many flights will the gremlin drones undertake in their lifetime?

The gremlins themselves are somewhere in between disposable drones and conventional drones. They are intended to last for years or decades. DARPA wants each gremlin to be able to fly a few dozen missions at most. In the process, making them more cost-effective than disposable systems. And additionally, cheaper than bigger, more complex drones that need continuous maintenance. The legend of gremlins may seem to be indestructible, but DARPA acknowledges that theirs are intended for a shorter lifespan. They write that each drone in a gremlin swarm would have an expected lifetime of about 20 uses.


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