DARPA Wants Friendly Gremlin Drones

Just don’t give them autonomy after midnight

It’s no secret that modern military aircraft are really, really expensive. Fighters like the F-35B cost about $134 million apiece, which makes them both attractive targets and potential liabilities in battle. To combat the high costs of modern planes, DARPA wants swarms of cheaper, useful drones, with expected lifespans of around 20 uses. They’re calling these drones “gremlins“.

DARPA says it envisions the gremlins as an intermediate space between one-use missiles and platforms like fighter jets that remain in service for decades. DARPA program manager Dan Patt explained in a statement:

This is hardly the first time DARPA’s talked about cheap, reusable drones complementing the abilities of more expensive manned aircraft. Earlier this year DARPA released a concept video demonstrating an attack where a fighter controls drones scouting ahead of a C-130 transport plane. Once the targets are found, the C-130 releases cheap, swarming drones and cruise missiles to attack the enemy defenses, overwhelming the enemy with attackers. The Air Force has also expressed interest in cheap disposable attack drones that can be launched from other aircraft

In order for this kind of attack to work, the Air Force needs the gremlins to exist. On September 24th, DARPA is hosting a Proposer’s Day for companies to see what DARPA wants from the program. DARPA is funding program in three stages, with the third one being a full flight system demonstration. Should DARPA get the reusable yet disposable vehicle it wants, decades from now enemy aircraft may find something a little unsettling on their wing.

Kelsey D. Atherton

Kelsey D. Athertonis a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work on drones, lethal AI, and nuclear weapons has appeared in Slate, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.