The United States boasts some of the most advanced multi-mission combat aircraft in the world, but this can be a liability as well as an asset. True, each aircraft can outperform an entire squadron of a few decades ago, but they're also very expensive, incredibly complex, and not exactly expendable. For these reasons DARPA has launched the Gremlins program, which aims to develop swarms of cheaper, smarter aircraft that can be deployed and collected in midair.

Despite gaining popularity in the 1980s through the movie of the same name, the term "gremlins" was originally RAF slang for mischievous creatures that plagued airmen by causing all sorts of mechanical mishaps. During the Second World War they passed into popular culture after Roald Dahl, then the Assistant Air attaché at the British embassy in Washington, wrote The Gremlins, a children's novel that inspired a 1943 cartoon where Bugs Bunny did battle with one of the creatures.

Today, DARPA has adopted the name for its new project designed to create technology that will allow future air fighters to deploy swarms of low-cost, reusable unmanned platforms that can be dropped and retrieved by other aircraft. An outgrowth of the agency's systems-of-systems approach to air combat operations, Gremlins doesn't aim at replacing current multi-role aircraft, but to supplement them with simpler, cheaper, more specialized drones that can be deployed and recovered multiple times.

"Our goal is to conduct a compelling proof-of-concept flight demonstration that could employ intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and other modular, non-kinetic payloads in a robust, responsive and affordable manner," said DARPA program manager, Dan Patt.

According to DARPA, the tricky bit is getting these drones to work together, and with their human masters. To find some answers, DARPA is expanding on a Request for Information (RFI) that it issued last year in order to solicit proposals for developing, in the agency's words:

  • Launch and recovery techniques, equipment and aircraft integration concepts

  • Low-cost, limited-life airframe designs

  • High-fidelity analysis, precision digital flight control, relative navigation and station keeping

DARPA hopes to take these new technologies and combine them with the work it's already doing on automated aerial refueling and unmanned aircraft recovery systems. The ultimate aim is to produce a new capability that will allow fighters, bombers, or transports to drop the little fixed-wing gremlins at a safe distance from the enemy, carry out their mission, and then return to be collected by a C-130 transport aircraft for return to base and a turnaround refit of 24 hours. Ideally, each gremlin would have a lifespan of 20 deployments and would act as a fill-in between manned aircraft and missiles.

"We wouldn't be discarding the entire airframe, engine, avionics and payload with every mission, as is done with missiles, but we also wouldn't have to carry the maintainability and operational cost burdens of today's reusable systems, which are meant to stay in service for decades," says Dan Patt, DARPA program manager

Participants are requested to register for a Proposers Day on September 24 at DARPA’s offices in Arlington, Virginia.