Instead of improving long-range sensors and strike capabilities, which would make individual aircraft more expensive and less expendable, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to let swarms of drones fan out to cover more ground and airspace.

It's called Project Gremlin and it's just an idea right now. But DARPA is calling for creative minds to help it flesh out the concept.

Taking their names from the mischievous mythological creatures that either helped or sabotaged aircraft, the type of Gremlins DARPA would like to see brought to life are tiny drones that could depart from and return to airborne aircraft. DARPA is calling them "friendly Gremlins."

The Gremlins could be launched from an aircraft flying in secure airspace, travel into hostile territory and then return to the same mothership or another friendly aircraft. The tech is already there to retrieve airborne drone, but DARPA wants to have multiple options in collecting them in the air.

The minuscule size of Gremlins would make them harder to take down and the loss of some of them wouldn't be as big a deal as losing a larger, more expensive drone. DARPA hopes to get two decades of life out of Gremlins, according to Dan Patt, DARPA program manager for tactical technology.

"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," Patt said.

DARPA hasn't indicated any intent to use the Gremlins and optional missiles. For now, the agency seems focused on building out the concept and collecting intelligence with them.

"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 Patt.

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Tags: DARPA Drones