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?