HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Military systems integrators at Dynetics Inc. in Huntsville, Ala., needed mission-critical power electronics for a U.S. military research program that seeks to build swarms of drone aircraft. They found their solution from Milpower Source Inc. in Belmont, N.H.
Milpower Source is supplying Dynetics with several kinds of power converters for the Gremlins program of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va.
DARPA Gremlins will rely on relatively inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in volley quantities to saturate enemy defenses, using military C-130 aircraft to launch drone swarms of networked and cooperating unmanned aircraft for electronic attack and reconnaissance missions from standoff ranges, and then recover surviving drones when their missions are completed.
Other C-130 aircraft then will recover as many of these drones as possible after the UAVs complete their missions. The Gremlins approach would launch and recover swarms of UAVs equipped with surveillance and electronic warfare (EW) payloads from beyond enemy air defenses.
"We addressed the operational requirements through our advanced engineering design processes to exceed stringent environmental and mechanical requirements, primarily weight, without sacrificing performance," says Joseph Widman, the DARPA Gremlins program manager at Milpower Source.
When the Gremlins drones 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.
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Dynetics is one of four companies designing UAV technologies for drones that are inexpensive enough so that occasional losses would not compromise the overall mission. These drones should be able to communicate and cooperate with one another, so surviving drones could assume the roles of those unmanned aircraft lost during the mission.
The other three companies working Gremlins technologies are General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. in San Diego; the Lockheed Martin Corp. Aeronautics segment in Fort Worth, Texas; and the Composite Engineering Inc. Unmanned Systems Division in Sacramento Calif.
Officials of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., have hired the four companies for the first phase of the Gremlins program, which will rely on relatively inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in volley quantities to saturate enemy defenses.
DARPA researchers want to develop affordable UAVs that could be reused as many as 20 times for dangerous missions in contested air space like pre-attack reconnaissance and surveillance, as well as electronic attack to destroy or disable enemy communications, missile defenses, and battlefield networks.
These drones will have diverse payloads in volley quantities, and would have the attributes of small vehicle size, reusability, and limited vehicle design life, DARPA officials say.
Named for the imaginary, mischievous imps that became the good luck charms of many British pilots during World War II, the program envisions launching groups of UAVs from existing large aircraft such as bombers or transport aircraft—as well as from fighters and other small, fixed-wing aircraft.
Key enabling technologies for the Gremlins program include aerial launch and aerial recovery techniques, equipment, and aircraft integration concepts; low-cost, attritable airframe designs; design for limited life; automated waveoff strategy; precision digital flight control and navigation; aerial refueling techniques; efficient small turbine engines; automated fuel tank inerting and engine shutoff; small distributed payload integration; and precision station keeping.
DARPA is pursuing the Gremlins program in three phases: system and technology design; preliminary design; and prototype flight demonstration.
Dynetics won a $38.6 million 21-month phase-three award for Gremlins technology development, says Tim Keeter, deputy program manager and chief engineer for Gremlins at Dynetics.
“Rapid development of innovative and complex systems like Gremlins drives us to identify and use system components with the highest reputation for reliability and performance," Keeter says. "We are proud to have Milpower Source on our Gremlins air vehicle team."
Ultimately DARPA wants a Gremlins flight demonstration by early 2020 to show the feasibility and potential of air-launched, recoverable unmanned aircraft. Only phase-one contractors will be eligible to participate in the program's second and third phases.
The program seeks to make a fundamental shift in the notion of aerial attack. Instead of using conventional, monolithic systems to conduct missions in denied environments, DARPA wants to use several platforms with coordinated and distributed warfighting functions to saturate adversary defenses.
The idea is to use conventional aircraft hosts to transport and launch a volley of gremlins from stand-off ranges. Researchers want to scale-up the number of UAVs such that a loss of any individual drone is reduced as a result of the collaboration between vehicles.
Not only does the program have the potential to enable enhanced mission effectiveness in contested environments, but it also explores an approach to reduce the cost of operations dramatically.
DARPA officials envision the primary focus of the Gremlins program to be on the technical challenges of aerial launch and recovery of volley quantities of air drones.
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