DARPA nabs Gremlin drone in midair for first time (2024)

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the number of Gremlin drones involved in the test flight. Three of the systems flew during the event.

WASHINGTON — For the first time, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recovered an unmanned X-61 Gremlin air vehicle to a C-130 in flight, marking a milestone in the U.S. military’s effort to deploy swarms of drones from a mothership.

The first successful midair Gremlin recovery took place Oct. 29 at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, DARPA said in a Friday release. During this flight test — the fourth deployment of the Gremlins — two of the small drones successfully carried out all formation flying positions and safety features before one was successfully recovered, DARPA said.

A third Gremlin was destroyed during the flight tests, DARPA said.

The Gremlins team then refurbished the recovered drone and flew it again within 24 working hours, the release said.

DARPA hopes the program — named for the imaginary, mischievous creatures that World War II-era pilots blamed when their aircraft or equipment malfunctioned — will one day allow the military to launch groups of small sensor-laden drones from bombers, cargo planes or smaller aircraft such as fighters.

DARPA envisions the motherships will stay out of range of enemy defenses, but the drone swarms would fly into danger and conduct missions such as intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance or electronic warfare.

After the mothership collects the drones and brings them back to base, ground crews would get them ready for another flight within 24 hours, DARPA said in a 2018 report.

The agency hopes each drone would have a lifetime of 20 flights. The agency said flying these relatively disposable drones would allow the military to accomplish missions much more cheaply and with less maintenance efforts than relying on nonexpendable systems meant to fly for decades.

“This recovery was the culmination of years of hard work and demonstrates the feasibility of safe, reliable airborne recovery,” Lt. Col. Paul Calhoun, the Gremlins program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, said in the release. “Such a capability will likely prove to be critical for future distributed air operations.”

Previous attempts to conduct airborne retrievals of the Gremlins were unsuccessful. In October 2020, DARPA kicked off a series of flight tests in which it tried, but failed, nine times to recover three Gremlins. DARPA said at the time those attempts were each inches away from working, and all Gremlins safely parachuted to the ground.

DARPA released a video of the successful recovery that showed the Gremlin latching into a docking bullet that extended from the C-130, folding its wings into its body and then being gripped by a recovery arm that took it into the C-130.

This time, four flights were conducted, during which hours of data — including information on air vehicle performance, how contact worked during the airborne retrieval, and the aerodynamic interactions between the Gremlin and the C-130′s recovery bullet — were collected, the release said.

“Airborne recovery is complex,” Calhoun said in the release. “We will take some time to enjoy the success of this deployment, then get back to work further analyzing the data and determining next steps for the Gremlins technology.”

The Gremlin drones are made by Dynetics, a subsidiary of Leidos.

About StephenLosey

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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DARPA nabs Gremlin drone in midair for first time (2024)


What is a gremlin drone? ›

The Dynetics X-61 Gremlins is an experimental unmanned aerial vehicle designed by Dynetics. X-61 Gremlins. X-61A in flight. Role. Experimental unmanned aerial vehicle.

How long can spy drones fly? ›

Most drones use lithium batteries that can be charged and discharged multiple times. Consumer drones typically have a flight time of around 10 minutes to 30 minutes on a single charge. More advanced and expensive drones can have longer flight times, sometimes exceeding 30 minutes or even up to an hour or more.

What can a spy drone do? ›

Can drones be used for spying? Yes, but only for the police. Drones are often used by law enforcement to track down suspects and terrorists using aerial bird watch views.

Can drones legally spy on you? ›

Criminal Code Section 934.50: Drones may not be used for surveillance in violation of another party's reasonable expectation of privacy; this includes law enforcement. However, police may use drones with a valid search warrant.

How far can a police drone follow you? ›

In general, most police drones can fly up to several kilometers (typically between 3-7 kilometers or 2-4 miles) from the operator, although some high-end models can have a drone range of up to 15 kilometers (9 miles) or more.

Can a drone spy on you at night? ›

In an age where privacy is a luxury, the night sky isn't just home to stars and planets anymore. Drones, whether used for surveillance, spying, or police operations, have become silent watchers in the dark.

What is a guardian drone? ›

Drone Guardian is a sensor and effector agnostic counter small unmanned aircraft system (C-sUAS) solution that offers fixed site protection against drone threats.

Why is it called a gremlin? ›

Said to have been invented by members of the Royal Naval Air Service in World War I, gremlin is used in works written in the 1940s for "an imaginary gnomelike creature who causes difficulties in aircraft." The word seems likely to have been influenced by goblin, but accounts of its origin are various and none are ...

What does Gremlin mode mean? ›

In June 2022, the term was defined on Dictionary.com as "a slang term for a way of behaving that intentionally and shamelessly gives in to and indulges in base habits and activities without regard for adhering to social norms or expectations".

What are gremlins used for? ›

Mechanical mischief makers

Gremlins were fictitious devilish spirits which made aircraft break down. They first appeared in the RAF during the Second World War. Problems with an aircraft would be blamed upon the work of the gremlins.


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