US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced the conclusion of the first fully successful airborne recovery of a Dynetics X-61 Gremlin drone. 

On October 29, 2021, a pair of Gremlins were launched and managed to fly autonomously in a formation, before one was recovered by a C-130 mothership aircraft. 

“This recovery was the culmination of years of hard work and demonstrates the feasibility of safe, reliable airborne recovery,” Lt. Col. Paul Calhoun, program manager for Gremlins program, said in a DARPA press release.

It was the fourth attempt to conduct such a test, with three previous attempts only managing to achieve partial success. During the last two occasions, the Gremlins demonstrated the ability of autonomous flight formation, but could not be successfully recovered, and were forced to land on their own with the help of a parachute. 

While the last test demonstrated the possibility of successful recovery, it still resulted in some unfortunate mishaps. 

According to Breaking Defense, Tim Keeter, Gremlins program manager for Dynetics, revealed that one of the drones tested in October actually crashed. 

It has experienced a power failure and could not be recovered via parachute, Keeter said. 

Furthermore, when DARPA attempted to repeat the recapture on October 31 using the same drone that has already been recovered, it was unable to do so. Once again, the drone had to land with a parachute.

In the press release, Calhoun said: “Airborne recovery is complex,” which adequately sums up the last several years of the program.

Gremlins is a collaboration between DARPA and Dynetics. It is aimed at producing a technology demonstrator for recoverable, reusable swarming drones.

Such vehicles could be launched in large packs, attack their target, and return to a mothership to be refueled and rearmed. 

The program was launched in 2016, and the first technology demonstrator conducted its maiden flight in 2019.