Gremlins are Air to Air Drones

If you are like most people, your drone flights start on the ground and end either on the ground or–in more cases than most of us want to admit–in a tree. Earlier this year, DARPA awarded initial contracts for the Gremlins program. The idea is to produce unmanned aircraft that can launch from another aircraft and then later have another aircraft recover it.

The idea is to allow a plane to launch an unmanned sensor, for example, while out of range of enemy fire. Later another aircraft can retrieve the drone where a ground crew would get it ready for another flight within 24 hours. An aircraft facing missile fire could unleash a swarm of drones, confusing attackers. The drones have a limited life of about twenty flights, allowing for inexpensive airframes that use existing technology. You can see a concept video from DARPA about how air-launched drones might play a role in future air combat below.

There are less military uses, too. Air-launched drones could investigate hurricanes, for example, or relay video during search and rescue operations. The concept isn’t new. The ScanEagle–a drone that started life as a tool for fishermen–has a system known as FLARES that allows a drone to lift it, launch it, and then later recover it (see second video, below).

It occurs to us that this is an area where hackers could make major contributions. Like FLARES, a hobby drone could easily lift an RC airplane and launch it. Recovery is a bit more complex, but where’s the fun if there is no challenge?

We’ve certainly seen our share of sophisticated drones built by hackers. Why not some that can launch and recover other drones?

57 thoughts on “Gremlins are Air to Air Drones

      1. But the other way of seeing the JSF program is a point of reference: see how much it cost us to develop a new fighter jet? Now look at the crap we can make for a small fraction of the cost and still win.

        1. True, for the money I bet you’d get much more killing power out of a swarm of drones, and no unpleasant flag-covered coffins. Of course since flag-covered coffins are about the only thing that stops the USA invading the entire world, overall that’s probably a bad development. Followed by the police model following everyone around, because you shouldn’t have anything to hide. Inventing cheap quadcopters, you arseholes!

    1. That’s the “leave in the part that the clueless customer wants” gambit.
      When they’re not paying attention it’ll be neatly dropped out of the equation.

      Interesting that they still imagine it’ll be used against 1980s-era soviet stuff… what happens when the opponent has a rotating fleet of hundreds of radar drones and automatic launching of fast – closing defender drones?

      1. computers and sensors always react far faster than any human could ever hope to, just think about modern seeking missiles, they make decisions with a reaction time no natural human will ever attain and those have existed for decades, all while under dogfight conditions or worse.
        you are right in such a situation ping would be a problem but honestly in the modern world humans are a source of latency in and of themselves.

        the reason one might want a pilot is that there is no communication link necessary, this means that an asset would be harder to detect and could operate independently, it also isn’t susceptible to electronic warfare in the same way and with the practical demonstrations there have been of hijacking globalhawk’s that should be a concern.
        no system no matter how advanced or premium is beyond the humble tinkerer in the modern world.

        on top of that comes the decision making capability of humans, that is where one might see humans actually be faster than electronics.

          1. then use a target designation scheme and you still wont need an actual pilot, now ýou need a weapons and mission manager to be remotely connected instead of a pilot.

            once the drone knows what is a valid target, something that is greatly simplified in the dogfightiong scenario, then the drone would be much better off without a pilot, even if there was no latency.

        1. A.I. has already been proven to out fly even the best humans so that side of things is as far away as it takes to put an A.I. into a fighter. i.e. A software upgrade away.

    2. Why indeed? The aim of DOD’s research of these days appears to be replacing expensive (to train) pilots and soldiers with machines that can be cheaply made and deployed. This allows you to outnumber your opponent without having to out-spend him. You can have many more RPVs than pilots out there – you just leave most of them in autonomous mode while the few requiring attention get real pilots.

      Another advantage is that you can have MANY many more RPVs stockpiled all over the world that can be mission ready in a matter of hours rather than the days or weeks it takes to move an aircraft carrier or tactical wing to the hot spot of the day. Somewhere far away, aces are directing and fighting, and trainees are getting “real” combat experience.

      As George S. Patton said (at least in the movie), “Nobody ever won a war dying for his country. They won by making the other poor bastard die for HIS country.”

      1. So what do you do when you are attacked by such? You either nuke the enemy leadership or if you lack nukes try some other WMD, or if you lack an organized army get into guerrilla terrorism. What other response can there be? And WMD are justified if you are attacked by massive amounts of semi-autonomous machines since the enemy dropped any pretense of humanity.or fairness.

        If Paton was really a good general he’d also see that coming and would not approve.

        1. Patton’s main concerns was 1) not need to learn German, and 2) Not having to learn Russian.

          I don’t think he was too worried about early 21st century military technology.

          1. A general is suppose to worry about anything that can affect the battle and the war, if any.

            Also, if he worried about learning russian or german it would mean he envisioned being captured or surrendering.. not a good sign.

    3. Best guess, their concern is that the “truck” would need to get close enough that it would be inside of infrared missile range. A Russian Igla-S is fast enough to catch a cargo plane but not a fighter jet.

      Of course there are always the enemy fighters that you need to worry about as well.

      1. You can bet your ass it can catch a jet fighter, it’s just that it’s short range and fact it’s a passive heat seeker seriously limits it’s operating envelope against them.
        Speaking of russian AA, they have a plethora of other SAM systems that would pose a more significant threat to an aircraft, should it prove to be hostile.

    4. The point we’re at, a human being in a plane with a bubble canopy still has better situational awareness than a person remotely flying the same plane, let alone a computer. I’m talking about not just “there’s a thing” but also “what is that thing” and “what do I do about it.”

      This is the answer I received when I asked some guys who actually design military drones for a living why fighters aren’t drones yet. I figure if they’re saying their own product can’t do something, that’s probably the case.

      1. no amount of experience makes arguments from authority correct, they might be probable but that is a different matter.

        i would also like to know how one beats 360 degree unobscured vr view of ones surroundings with a more limited view of a bubble cockpit, in fact even the different producers of military airframes recognize this and have started looking into virtually “removing” the airframe from the pilots view, something that is already done in some high end military RPAS.

        situational awareness is a finicky thing to take into account so of course there are several situations where a pilot really would be a better choice but i dont think one can say it would be so in all or even most scenarios.

        1. It is very sad that there is only ONE comment about this being wrong. Foreign policy of the United States is causing more wars and deaths than the crusades, for example. Innocent civilians are killed every week by US drones or fighters. Even your own young people are sent to die away from home, all based on lies about 3rd world crap. I have great respect for the American people, a great nation indeed. But wake up, children in Syria or Irak are dying as we type. This is something NOT WORTH CELEBRATING

          1. The Arab spring and the regional events that led up to it was triggered by people, people with newly acquired internet connections and social media on phones etc., it had nothing to do with drones. You can speculate all you like about who was behind that trigger and if they got the result they were after, but it sill is about people and not drones.

            Almost every instance of where a drone was used to kill people the same result could have been achieve with a B2 bomber and conventional carpet bombing, except it would have cost a lot more, cause massive amounts of collateral damage and looked really bad on the news.

            Wars are a people thing.

        2. “War is the terrorism of the rich, terrorism is the war of the poor”, as in, war is terrorism done by rich people, etc. That’s the quote, perhaps in the wrong order.

    5. Mission truck is slow, vulnerable, but critically important for the mission. While fighter there doesn’t approach the red zone, it is still at somewhat greater risk of unanticipated engagement (e.g. another SAM mobile platform in ambush, very carefully camouflaged with electronics completely switched off on first approach). That’s why it stays back, above secured territory.

      Of course, this is a new weapon for fighting yesterday’s wars and it will be super effective only as long as the response to it is not deployed. Game of dispersion and swarming can be played from the AA defence side, too, probably even cheaper than from the air strike side. SAM sites will get amended with additional subsystems similar to AEGIS ship defences – automatic short range antimissile gatling guns, or directed energy weapons.

      Of course if the enemy is some dying autocracy, they won’t be able to pull that out. But then, why even spend money to develop weapons specified only against failed opponents? It is much cheaper to buy betrayal from their generals who are probably already in constant fear that their leader will have them executed on a whim.

      1. I have news for you, SAM sites of modern nations already have defense systems.
        The US ones do, the russian ones do, and I’m sure the israeli do, and the french ones do, andsoforth.

  1. Very interesting article and that FLARES video is great. I’ve been ignoring the defense budget for too long.
    We need more drones that lift drones that lift…

    I’ll step back out of here; great discussion going on!

  2. Drones etc. are only effective against an opponent who does not have electronic warfare counter measures and directed energy weapons. On a level playing field all your toys just get swept out of the sky before they can be effective, so whatever they build it is going to have to be very hardened and every stealthy, and good luck retaining the range while meeting the first two goals. Recovering them will be the least of your problems, plus the in air launch and recovery problem is a variation on mid air refuelling and that was solved a long time ago.

    1. Currently the only countries with the budget and know-how for such ECM and ECCM also happen to be nuclear superpowers, a direct confrontation would be…rather bad…

      These would most likely be used to show some 3rd world country dictator who’s boss without having to explain to the congress why the operation cost more then all the damages said country caused…also it helps when you don’t risk the lives of pilots who were very expensive to train.
      Loose a (relatively) cheap drone – whatever, send 2 more…even a 1:10 kill ratio against high-value targets would probably make them interesting for the armed forces.

      The only problem I forsee with this is that US has yet to design and build a cheap and modern weapon that gets put into service, not shelved/scrapped after several budget overruns and years of delays.

      1. You can put an A.I. in anything that is fly-by-wire, that gives them a lot of options, including previous generation fighters which would perform a lot better if they were not limited by having a lump of meat in control and having to carry a load of gear to keep the lump safe and happy. They could pull as many gees and the air-frame could handle which on a limited life aircraft would be very high as you can afford to have a few break on you which lets you operate right on the limit of what is possible.

      2. “We” turned Irag into a failed nation state at the cost of several thousand lives. Lesson learned: “we” turned Libya into a failed nation state with some cruise missiles and smart bombs at the cost of 1 US ambassador and his team.

        By the way, I was using the royal “we”.

      3. Or a popularly beloved third world leader, who won’t do as he’s told. Of course the third-world dictators who serve their masters faithfully have nothing to worry about. Saudi Arabia is as bad as plenty of other axes of evil, but they’re “our” friends, so that’s OK. We’ll just gently ask them not to torture quite so many people. Never Of course “we” do that too.

        Basically war’s a more complex problem than showing cartoon arabs that the USA is boss. It’s also mostly a sham, mostly a racket, mostly against the best interests of the people of the “boss” countries. The Cold War was the same thing, on both sides. Nowadays it’s Mohammed instead of Boris, but the plot’s just the same.

        None of these ideas are new, “War Is A Racket” was written in 1935.

    1. How long will it be cool if all nations and idiots get armed drones. And the US police too. Good luck surviving future world population.
      The US cops already set a new precedent recently by sending in a robot with a bomb to blow up the Dallas shooter. And who’s next? And what crime will the next target have done? Or merely been accused of?

      1. Live by the sword, die by the sword, bullet, drone, bomb, pointy stick….. or a cute little Chinese lady.

        Warning, don’t hit play if you don’t know what to expect in the video below.

        There seems to be a rule all over the world, become a threat to the lives of others and you get killed.

        If you don’t like that then invent a device that can be fired from a drone or robot that just shuts down the higher brain functions without doing any harm, just for long enough for the person to be captured or hostages rescued. Until then we are all still not much more than apes with rocks and sticks, so you shouldn’t expect elegant solutions to the problem of violence.

          1. I don’t consider you sane, to be honest, for the simple reason that you are fanatical and idealistic rather than pragmatic and realistic about what one can reasonable expect from any random collection of humans.

    1. was about to say the same thing:

      from wikipedia: “By 1971, the USAF no longer considered the ADM-20C a credible decoy. The commander of the Strategic Air Command wrote the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force “that the Quail was only slightly better than nothing.””

      1. “no longer considered .. a credible decoy.” Only because the differences between the ADM-20 and fighter jets were easily detected. But what if you have a sky full of aircraft that all look and fly the same, some of which are autonomous and others remotely piloted? Of course, you can still tell the difference between them if you observe them for a while, but what do you do when the pilots can instantaneously shift from one aircraft to another?

  3. So.. the FLARES video shows a quadcopter successfully launching a fixed-wing aircraft. It then shows the initial stages of a recovery operation, fading to black before contact. I can only assume that the recovery was not successful.

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