The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has tapped Dynetics Inc. to conduct a demonstration in which a manned C-130 transport plane will launch and recover small unmanned aerial vehicles in mid-air.

The Dynetics-led team has received a 21-month, $38.6 million contract award to carry out the test for DARPA’s Gremlins program, the Pentagon announced late April 17. By late 2019, Dynetics aims to retrieve four UAVs in less than 30 minutes. 

Under DARPA's Gremlins program, Dynetics Inc. will launch and recover unmanned aerial vehicles from a C-130. (Artist's rendering courtesy of Dynetics)
Under DARPA’s Gremlins program, Dynetics Inc. will launch and recover unmanned aerial vehicles from a C-130. (Artist’s rendering courtesy of Dynetics)

During recovery, UAVs will dock with a “capture device” towed from the back of the C-130. The UAVs will then be reeled into the C-130’s cargo bay.

Tim Keeter, a deputy program manager and chief engineer at Huntsville, Ala.-based Dynetics, told reporters April 18 that the UAVs will use “a clean-sheet design that was optimized for this mission.” The vehicle will have a range of at least 600 miles.

While the UAVs will not carry payloads during the demonstration, DARPA and Dynetics both envision that such UAVs could ultimately carry a mix of sensors to allow manned aircraft to stay out of the range of enemy defenses.

“When [the UAVs] complete their mission, they return to airborne manned platforms to be recovered to a forward operating base where they can be quickly refurbished and put back into the fight,” Keeter said. “The potential to overwhelm an adversary continuously with multiple volleys is tremendous.”

Dynetics hopes the program will ultimately transition to the U.S. Air Force or another military service for operational use. It said its technology could be adapted to allow the UAVs to be recovered under a wing or by other aircraft types.

Dynetics attributed its victory partly to the strength of its “best-in-class” team. Teammates include Kratos [KTOS] Unmanned Aerial Systems, which will lead UAV construction and testing, and Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC), which will provide the precision navigation system needed to dock the UAVs with the C-130.

Other teammates include Applied Systems Engineering Inc., which will supply the UAV’s flight computer; Williams International, which will provide the UAV’s turbofan engine; Systima Inc., which will prepare the C-130’s UAV-launching pylon and launch controller hardware; Airborne Systems, which will build the UAV’s parachute recovery system for pre-demonstration testing; Moog Inc., which will provide the UAV’s control actuation systems; and International Air Response, which will provide the C-130.

Dynetics and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI), the losing bidder in the Gremlins competition, both conducted technology maturation work for the program under a previous phase. 

Keeter said Dynetics has already shown it can separate an air vehicle from a C-130 for the UAV’s launch, and deploy, stabilize and retrieve a UAV-recovery docking system.