Dynetics’ X-61A Gremlin completes first flight

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Dynetics have announced the successful first test flight of the X-61A Gremlin.

According to a DARPA press release on January 17, the flight took place several months before, in late November 2019, at the US Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. It added that the flight included “one captive-carry mission aboard a C-130 and an airborne launch and free flight lasting just over an hour-and-a-half”.

During the flight, the team gathered data on platform operation/performance, air- and ground-based command and control systems and flight termination. The flight ended with the test vehicle being lost after its parachute did not deploy. According to DARPA, “four vehicles remain operational and available for the test series, which will continue in 2020”.

Gremlins air vehicle during a flight test at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, November 2019. DARPA

The X-61A is a full-scale technology demonstrator – jointly developed by Dynetics and DARPA – to provide the USAF with low-cost force multipliers in the form of large numbers of small, reusable unmanned aerial systems (UASs) that can be air-launched and air-recoverable. As explained in the January 2020 issue of Air International, “the programme explores the technical areas of providing such a capability, including aircraft integration, air-based launch and recovery techniques, high-fidelity analysis, precision digital flight control and relative navigation on a cheap, limited-life airframe”. DARPA/Dynetics envisage that – in operational service – each X-61A would have a lifespan of 20 missions before being ready for replacement. These platforms would also be prepared for reuse with 24 hours after being returned to base. Several types of sensors – weighing up to 150lb (68kg) – can be incorporated into the X-61A.

Scott Wierzbanowski, the Gremlins programme manager at DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, said: “The vehicle performed well, giving us confidence, we are on the right path and can expect success in our follow-on efforts… We got a closer look at vehicle performance for launch, rate capture, engine start and transition to free flight. We had simulated the performance on the ground and have now full tested them in the air. We also demonstrated a variety of vehicle [manoeuvres] that helped validate our aerodynamic data.”

A C-130A has been employed as the demonstration platform during the Gremlins programme, but the integration of the X-61A aboard other US military transport aircraft, such as the C-17A, and other weapons systems would be easy, according to Wierzbanowski.

The next step of the programme will see a full evaluation of the test data and understand issues related to the deployment failure of the main parachute. A second flight test is expected to take place at Dugway Proving Ground this spring.