Sunday, March 01, 2020

Air Launched, C-130 Recoverable Drones?

The US Air Force carried out a test in late November showing off the capabilities of their new low-cost, reusable unmanned aerial systems (UASs), or “Gremlins.” The X-61A vehicle can be carried aboard a C-130, bomber, or other preexisting aircraft, and launched in flight and sustain its own free flight lasting a little over an hour and a half. Upon completion of free flight, the drones can rendezvous with, and be recovered by a C-130. According to Aerospace and Defense News, “The team met all objectives of the test in November, including gathering data on operation and performance, air and ground-based command and control systems, and flight termination.” The Gremlin has a limited lifetime - around twenty uses - which provides many cost and maintenance advantages due to the reduced payload and air frame costs. As the program introducing the Gremlin enters its third phase, the team hopes that the new UASs will be able to successfully employ intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions and other modular, non-kinetic payloads in an affordable manner. 
During the latest test, one of the drones crashed leaving four of the five intact for future tests and demonstrations. Dynetics, the team responsible for the construction of the X-61As, say that the tests with the remaining four UASs are set to resume sometime this spring. This test will determine whether the Gremlins can be recovered successfully by a C-130 after free flight. Dynetics, “characterized this test as critical for proving that the Gremlins can be reused over multiple missions…” It is hoped that the low cost and recoverability of these UASs will provide benefits over traditionally expensive UAVs. 
The main concern for the upcoming tests is the recoverability aspect of the Gremlins. During the recovery process, Defense News reports, “the C-130 will lower a towed capture device that will mate with the Gremlins drone… Once the drone is stabilized by the capture device, an engagement arm deploys, docking with the X-61A and bringing it inside the C-130 cargo bay to be stowed.” The UASs would then be brought back to refuel and be ready for another use within twenty four hours. 
The next step for the team working on developing the capabilities of the X-61A is troubleshooting why the one drone that crashed malfunctioned. The main parachute did not deploy properly from the drone. As testing continues later this year, the Air Force has high hopes that recovery of the UASs by a C-130 is within their abilities.

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