Gremlins – robotic version?

Many of us remember the World War II-vintage Bugs Bunny cartoon ‘Falling Hare’, where the fabled wabbit meets up with a gremlin on a US Army Air Force base.

Cute little imp, ain’t he?

In yet another case of truth being stranger than fiction, it looks as if DARPA has plans for a fleet of modern roboticized ‘gremlins’ to help fight the next war.

The military has two types of long-range weapons systems: missiles that can be fired from great distances and are never seen again, and complex aircraft that remain in use for generations. What they have in common expense, whether they’re one-and-done munitions or aircraft that are costly to build and maintain.

The Pentagon’s lead research arm wants another alternative, looking to develop relatively cheap drones that can be launched from large aircraft or fighters, attack a target or conduct ISR, and then be retrieved in-flight.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has announced a program it’s calling Gremlins, looking to prove the feasibility of affordable unmanned systems that can be safely launched and recovered in the air, spreading the payload and airframe costs over as many as 20 uses instead of just one. In addition to reusability, DARPA hopes that the program could save money by making use of existing unmanned aircraft rather than designing new models.

Gremlins—named for the imaginary, mischievous creatures that boosted morale among British pilots in World War II—builds on an idea DARPA put forth in November, with a Request for Information on the idea of using large aircraft, such as C-130 transport or the B-52 bomber as “aircraft carriers” for small drones.

Under the Gremlins plan, groups of drones would be launched from large aircraft such as the C-130 or B-52, or from fighters or other smaller aircraft while those manned aircraft are outside the range of an adversary’s defenses. After the gremlins carry out their mission, a C-130 would round them up and take them back to base, where they could be set up for their next mission within 24 hours, DARPA said.

There’s more at the link, and at DARPA’s Web site.

The concept of an ‘airborne aircraft-carrier’ for drones is an interesting one.  However, it also makes me wonder about enemy counter-measures.  When the Boeing E-3 Sentry entered service in the late 1970’s, the Soviet Union developed the R-37 ‘AWACS killer’ air-to-air missile, designed to be fired from hundreds of miles away.  Even if it didn’t kill the AWACS plane, its approach (particularly when fired in a ‘swarm’ of dozens of the missiles) would force the aircraft to abandon its airborne early warning role and take evasive action to avoid being shot down.  It would also force AWACS to orbit further away from the front line, reducing its coverage of the area of hostilities and rendering it less effective.  (A more modern ‘AWACS killer’ missile, the Novator K-100, is reportedly under development.)

Could a similar countermeasure be applied to a ‘gremlin carrier’, forcing it to keep its cargo of drones further away from their targets?  I don’t see why not.  (For that matter, I can see an enemy getting really creative and producing their own version of a ‘gremlin’, which would then allow the ‘carrier’ to ‘recover’ it.  As soon as it gets close enough . . . bang!)

It’ll be interesting to see where this leads.



  1. The Russians never fielded the R-37… they designed it, dropped it, restarted it, and are claiming that this time they really mean it they're going to make them so be careful because by God they're going to threaten the AWACS and they're really serious this time STOP LAUGHING. Yeah, it's an idea that I'm surprised hasn't come yet, but apparently it's a little harder to make that sort of thing function for an acceptable price than they initially thought.

    The "airborne aircraft carrier" idea might actually work with drones. It was tried with the B-36 and the XF-85 Goblin, but that never worked out. It wasn't workable for human pilots to dock like that and the fighter was kind of useless anyway. With a drone the recovery would be automated and there's all sorts of nasty little toys you can mount in something the size and shape of a cruise missile.

  2. An alternative I have proposed is 'disposable' drones, deployed from a carrier aircraft. They would be little recon birds or kamikazes; would not need to weigh more than a few pounds. Maybe an hour of flight/glide time. Drop 'eggs' of a hundred of them at a time.

  3. The "airborne aircraft carrier" idea might actually work with drones. It was tried with the B-36 and the XF-85 Goblin,

    The Akron and Macon were not available for comment.

  4. As others have mentioned, the XF-85 was a similar manned attempt, but it ran into docking issues due to turbulence – I suspect that these UAV's would run into similar issues; it is one thing to mate at slow speeds like the Akron or Macon did with propeller planes, but an entirely different thing to mate at high speeds like this proposes. It would make the turbulence and difficulty of aerial refueling look like nothing!
    I am with the other commenter on using disposable UAV's instead – the military is already working on ways to use them to save money over retasking manned aircraft, but as someone who has dealt with a significant number of UAV systems, I think we are still a long way from doing that on a regular basis due to current limitations in the technology – the current and near term future systems need too much in terms of systems check and crew intervention for launch to make them practical.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *