The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) completed the initial flight test of the X-61A unmanned aerial system under Phase 3 of its Gremlins drone swarming program late last fall, the agency and industry partners announced this week.
The test, which took place in late November 2019 at the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, involved one captive-carry mission on an Air Force C-130A transport aircraft and an airborne launch and free flight, which lasted about 90 minutes, DARPA said in a Jan. 17 release.
The aircraft flew “as predicted with no anomalies,” prime industry partner Dynetics said in a Jan. 17 release. It achieved all test objectives before the engine was shut down and a drogue chute was deployed to terminate the flight. The test flight vehicle was lost during the ground recovery sequence “due to a failure to extract the main chute,” they noted.
Tim Keeter, Dynetics Gremlins program manager, said in the release that he was overall proud of the test’s effort. “The GAV [Gremlins Air Vehicle] 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 Phase 3; we still have four remaining,” he said.
The flight was originally scheduled for early September at Naval Air Station China Lake, California, but was delayed due to damage sustained in the July 2019 Ridgecrest earthquakes, Dynetics officials previously said. The Gremlins team is expecting a second flight test in the spring 2020 timeframe, and will perform a full evaluation of the test data and analyze any issues related to the failure of the main drogue shoot to deploy.
Under Phase 3, the effort’s partners plan to test the ability to recover four GAVs in under 30 minutes, before approaching new stakeholders to launch an official program of record.
Scott Wierzbanowski, the program manager for Gremlins in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, said the vehicle’s successful performance gave the team confidence that they are “on the right path.”
“We got a closer look at vehicle performance for launch, rate capture, engine start, and transition to free flight,” he said in a DARPA release. “We had simulated the performance on the ground, and have now fully tested them in the air. We also demonstrated a variety of vehicle maneuvers that helped validate our aerodynamic data.”
The Gremlins program’s goal is to build a low-cost, reusable small UAS that can be deployed from existing aircraft and enable capabilities including autonomous operations, distributed battle management via swarming technologies and transport advanced payloads. Dynetics has participated in the Gremlins program since its inception in 2016, and in 2018 was awarded a Phase 3 contract worth $38.6 million for a 21-month demonstration phase. The entire program, run by DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, is expected to last 43 months and is worth up to $64 million.
The Gremlins industry team includes Dynetics, Kratos [KTOS] partnering with Composite Engineering, Inc., Sierra Nevada Corporation/Kutta Technologies, Inc.; Applied Systems Engineering, Inc.; Williams International; Systima Technologies, Inc.; Airborne Systems; Moog Inc. [MOG.A]; and International Air Response.