The future of aerial drones behind enemy lines won’t necessarily be big unmanned aircraft like the Reaper taking off from runways and flying hundreds of miles into the teeth of enemy air defenses. Instead, defense contractor Northrop Grumman has developed a small, disposable drone that fits inside a shell that looks like a cluster bomb. The idea: When an F/A-18 drops the fake munition, the drone would pop out, unfold its wings and fly into enemy territory, undetected, to collect data on enemy positions.
Northrop conducted a flight test of the new drone, dubbed Remedy, on Oct. 26. The demonstration showed that the unmanned plane could share sensor and intelligence data with manned aircraft. The next step will be making sure it can unfold in the air and take flight. Engineers anticipate completing the research and development in 2019. The Office of Naval Research is a partner on the program, as is a small engineering outfit called VX Aerospace.
“The issue with unmanned airframes is, for all their advantages, how do you get something this small 400, 700 miles away from an aircraft carrier?” John “JJ” Thompson, the campaign director for Northrop’s airborne C4ISR division, told reporters at one of the company’s research and construction facilities near Baltimore.
Once the capsule is released, the drone would be pulled out by a parachute, unfold its 12-foot wings, and power up a small, wooden propeller. Remedy has a 10-hour flight time, at 69 knots.
That size is rather small and that pace incredibly slow for military aircraft, which is part of the point, said Thompson. The plane’s slowness makes it look like a bird to many types of military radar. “When you think about how military [radar] systems are designed, they are designed to shoot down tactical jets. You build into radars gates that take away things like birds.” he said. Case in point, the lawnmower engine-powered gyrocopter that Douglas Hughes, a Florida man used in 2015 to fly from Pennsylvania to Capitol Hill, all while evading detection by a sophisticated, expensive military blimp — technically, an aerostat — outfitted with radars to detect missiles and enemy aircraft. The Northrop drone is supposed to fly high enough to avoid enemies with small weapons, but low and slow enough to evade radar.
The research program has much in common with the Gremlins project, a DARPA effort to build small launched drones that can be launched and retrieved in mid-air. It’s all part of the military’s push for more human-machine teaming touted by both former Defense Secretary Ash Carter and his replacement, James Mattis. The concept emphasizes the use of robotics and artificial intelligence, mostly in support of manned jets and human operators.
In theory, a Remedy could be outfitted with weapons and turned into a slow but highly maneuverable missile. But the military’s interest right now is in outfitting it with sensors and cameras for intelligence and reconnaissance, said Thompson.
“We’ll send in these as a swarm. They’ll begin to do search patterns for where we believe — in this general area is — this object that we are searching for. Could be [searching for] theatre ballistic missile, long range engagement radar, short-range engagement radar,” he said.