Tag Archives: DARPA

DARPA Gremlins

Attempts at airborne retrieval of three unmanned air vehicles, nicknamed Gremlins, were just inches from success in DARPA’s latest flight test series that started on October 28. Each X-61A Gremlins Air Vehicle (GAV) flew for more than two hours, successfully validating all autonomous formation flying positions and safety features. Nine attempts were made at mechanical engagement of the GAVs to the docking bullet extended from a C-130 aircraft, but relative movement was more dynamic than expected and each GAV ultimately, safely parachuted to the ground.

X-61A Gremlins Air Vehicle (GAV)
Gremlins Air Vehicle and C-130 aircraft during a test at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah

«All of our systems looked good during the ground tests, but the flight test is where you truly find how things work», said Scott Wierzbanowski, program manager for Gremlins in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. «We came within inches of connection on each attempt but, ultimately, it just wasn’t close enough to engage the recovery system».

Hours of data were collected over three flights, including aerodynamic interactions between the docking bullet and GAV. Efforts are already underway to analyze that data, update models and designs, and conduct additional flights and retrieval attempts in a fourth deployment this spring.

«We made great strides in learning and responding to technological challenges between each of the three test flight deployments to date», said Wierzbanowski. «We were so close this time that I am confident that multiple airborne recoveries will be made in the next deployment. However, as with all flight testing, there are always real world uncertainties and challenges that have to be overcome».

The goal of the Gremlins program is to demonstrate air launch and air recovery of four GAVs within 30 minutes. The capability of safe, effective, and efficient air recoveries will dramatically expand the potential uses of unmanned air vehicles in conflict situations. The GAVs can be equipped with a variety of sensors and other mission-specific technologies. They can also be launched from various types of military aircraft, keeping those less expendable assets beyond the range of adversary defenses. After air retrieval of GAVs, they would be transported back to the ground where crews could prepare them for another mission within 24 hours.

Dynetics, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Leidos, is developing the Gremlin vehicles.

Operational Fires

As Lockheed Martin continues the work with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to advance the unique hypersonic technologies of its Operational Fires (OpFires) program, the company today announced its initial round of key subcontractors on the program. OpFires seeks to develop and demonstrate an innovative ground-launched system to enable a hypersonic boost glide missile system to penetrate modern enemy air defenses and rapidly engage time-sensitive targets.

OpFires program
Lockheed Martin’s OpFires team is developing a missile with a unique throttleable booster that can defeat targets across the medium-range spectrum

Joining prime contractor Lockheed Martin on the OpFires Phase Three Weapon System Integration program are Northrop Grumman, Dynetics, and Electronic Concepts & Engineering, Inc (ECE).

«The engineering innovation required to deliver this maneuverable and rapid-response solution demands a best-of-industry team», said Steven Botwinik, director of Tactical and Strike Missiles Advanced Programs. «OpFires and its unique throttleable booster make it a versatile platform to launch a variety of payloads over varied ranges and for this reason, OpFires is well-suited to address the Army’s Medium Range Strategic Fires needs».

Specifically, the new subcontractors on the program will support the technology development in the following ways:

  • Northrop Grumman in Elkton, Md., will develop the stage one solid rocket motor;
  • Dynetics in Huntsville, Ala., will deliver the cannister, all up round and fins, and support integration and test; and
  • ECE, a small business based in Holland, Ohio, will provide the booster power pyro module.

Lockheed Martin has played a significant role in the research, development and demonstration of hypersonic technologies for more than 30 years. The corporation has made significant investments in key technology and capability development – including hypersonic strike capabilities and defense systems against emerging hypersonic threats and is supporting all branches of the U.S. military on these hypersonic programs.

The company expects to complete its first live fire in 2021.

Hypersonic Weapons

September 1, 2020, DARPA and the U.S. Air Force (USAF) announced successful completion of captive carry tests of two variants of the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) and are ready to proceed to first free-flight testing within the calendar year. The joint Agency and Service effort seeks to develop and demonstrate critical technologies to enable an effective and affordable air-launched hypersonic cruise missile.

DARPA Completes Key Milestone on Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapons Program

HAWC performers Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Technologies have each tested advanced air vehicle configurations that promise to achieve and sustain efficient hypersonic flight. Their upcoming flight tests will focus on hydrocarbon scramjet-powered propulsion and thermal management techniques to enable prolonged hypersonic cruise, in addition to affordable system designs and manufacturing approaches.

«Completing the captive carry series of tests demonstrates both HAWC designs are ready for free flight», said Andrew «Tippy» Knoedler, HAWC program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. «These tests provide us a large measure of confidence – already well informed by years of simulation and wind tunnel work – that gives us faith the unique design path we embarked on will provide unmatched capability to U.S. forces».

The HAWC program, since inception, has been executed as a joint program between DARPA and the USAF. In addition, DARPA is working in cooperation with military services and agencies, including the Missile Defense Agency, U.S. Navy, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to validate, and eventually transition key technologies. The extensive flight data collected is intended to increase the confidence in air-breathing hypersonic systems and reduce the risks to potential future acquisition programs across the U.S. government.

Gremlins Program

After meeting several primary objectives during risk reduction flights at the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah in late July, DARPA’s Gremlins program now is targeting additional tests of its X-61A vehicle later this year. The program seeks to develop and demonstrate air launch and air recovery of up to four Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs), known as Gremlins Air Vehicles (or just Gremlins), within 30 minutes.

Gremlins X-61-A vehicle flies below an Air Force C-130 aircraft

Over several days in July, the technology development team completed multiple flight tests of the Gremlins air-vehicle ground and recovery systems, including demonstration of a recovery system safely retrieving and stowing the air vehicles. The team also conducted a controlled launch of a Gremlin flying for more than two hours and performed rendezvous and autonomous formation station-keeping between the air vehicle and a C-130 at a separation of 125 feet/38.1 m.

The July flights follow the program’s first flight test in November 2019, during which the program completed one captive-carry mission, and an airborne launch and free flight lasting more than 90 minutes.

«The air vehicle performed beautifully from launch through mission modes, and the consistency between the flight tests in November and July increases confidence in the X-61A», said Scott Wierzbanowski, the Gremlins program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. «However, we made a decision to delay the first air recovery attempt and instead focus on key risk reduction activities to better ensure a smooth air recovery test later this year».

The program now calls for flight tests to resume in October with the key objective to recover first one, and then two, air vehicles in the same flight. By the end of the year, the program aims to complete the test series, culminating with airborne recovery of four Gremlins within 30 minutes. This final demonstration will showcase the capability of safe, effective, and efficient air recoveries, opening the way to dramatically expand the application and utility of attritable UASs.

Mission flexibility and affordability are the key attributes of the Gremlins system, which would launch groups of UASs from multiple types of military aircraft while the latter remain beyond the range of adversary defenses. The Gremlins program is using a C-130 as the demonstration platform, but the recovery system is designed to be easily modified and compatible with a wide array of transport aircraft and weapons systems. Once Gremlins complete their missions, the transport aircraft would retrieve them in the air and carry them home, where ground crews could prepare them for their next use within 24 hours.

Gremlins can incorporate several types of sensors weighing up to 150 pounds/68 kg, and integrate technologies to accommodate different stakeholders and missions.

X-Plane Program

DARPA has selected three performers to work on the Control of Revolutionary Aircraft with Novel Effectors (CRANE) program, which aims to demonstrate an aircraft design based on Active Flow Control (AFC), an area not fully explored compared to traditional flight controls. The goal is to demonstrate significant efficiency benefits of AFC, as well as improvements in aircraft cost, weight, performance, and reliability.

Three performers on the Control of Revolutionary Aircraft with Novel Effectors program will seek to demonstrate active flow control for aircraft stability and in-flight control

«The performers are looking at using active flow control very early in the design scope. That’s the differentiating piece that hasn’t been done before», said Alexander Walan, the program manager for CRANE in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. «AFC has been explored at a component level, but not as an integral piece of aircraft design. By altering the design approach, CRANE seeks to maximize the chance of a successful X-plane development while also integrating AFC into the aircraft’s stability and control».

The program is kicking off Phase 0, a long conceptual design phase to give performers time to evaluate flow control options before solidifying their demonstration approaches. The performers selected for Phase 0 are:

  • Aurora Flight Sciences;
  • Lockheed Martin; and
  • Georgia Tech Research Corporation.

Phase 0 awards will comprise multiple conceptual design trades, active flow control component testing, multi-domain analysis and optimization, concept down selection, and a conceptual design review.

Over the past two decades, the term AFC has described a wide range of fluid dynamic control approaches. For the CRANE program, active flow control is defined as the on-demand addition of energy into a boundary layer for maintaining, recovering, or improving vehicle aerodynamic performance. CRANE is excluding already proven techniques that use large external moving surfaces, mechanical vectoring of engine jet exhaust, or other traditional moving aerodynamic control devices.

CRANE performers are expected to maximize use of commercial off-the-shelf-parts and components for non-flight control subsystems to reduce program risk outside of unique configurations and AFC technologies.

«Active flow control technology has matured at the component level to the point where a potential leap forward in aircraft technology is possible», said Walan. «We see an opportunity with CRANE to open up the future design space for both defense and civilian applications».

One step closer

Raytheon Intelligence & Space (RI&S), a Raytheon Technologies business, will build two prototype sensor payloads for DARPA’s Blackjack program, under a $37M contract. Blackjack is a low Earth orbit satellite constellation program that aims to develop and demonstrate the critical elements for persistent global coverage against a range of advanced threats. It seeks to track multiple threats simultaneously for faster and earlier warning for national security.

Constellation of low earth orbit sensors to be delivered to DARPA

«Constellations offer built-in resiliency – strength in numbers», said Wallis Laughrey, Space & Command and Control communication (C2) Systems lead for Raytheon Intelligence & Space. «The entire network of satellites can continue to operate uninterrupted, even if one drops off».

RI&S is reducing integration timelines for rapid deployment, having completed Blackjack’s preliminary design review in October 2019. During preliminary design review, RI&S engaged with major subcontractors to confirm costs and ensure the team would be ready to go to production. The company is leveraging its advanced manufacturing capabilities, fast-production and commercial space programs to deliver the two sensors.

«Blackjack is innovative in its simplicity», said Laughrey. «We’ve incorporated mature tech like advanced algorithms and optics that allow us to go fast, but from day one, our primary design driver was manufacturing for cost».

RI&S’ Blackjack production will support the team for the constellation’s autonomous mission management system, Pit Boss. Pit Boss interconnects all of the data from the Blackjack satellite constellation, acting as the collection and processing hub to deliver data to the right person at the right time.

The RI&S contract goes through critical design review and support to the systems integrator for integration with Pit Boss and the space vehicle. It also includes launch campaign support and the on-orbit demonstration. Following Critical Design Review (CDR) in November 2020, DARPA has the option to order an additional eight or 18 sensor payloads.

Blackjack Program

In partnership with the U.S. Space Force and Space Development Agency, DARPA’s Blackjack program is targeting flights to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) later this year and 2021. Using a series of small risk reduction satellites, the program aims to demonstrate advanced technology for satellite constellation autonomy and space mesh networks. Blackjack seeks to develop and validate critical elements of global high-speed autonomous networks in LEO, proving a capability that could provide the Department of Defense with highly connected, resilient, and persistent overhead coverage.

Blackjack artist’s concept

The upcoming demonstration flights are all planned as rideshares, catching a ride to LEO on a launch with other missions. The first demonstration, Mandrake 1, is a cubesat that will carry supercomputer processing chips. Mandrake 2 is a pair of small satellites that will carry optical inter-satellite links for broadband data. These could form the basis of future optically meshed computer networks in LEO.

The program also is targeting a risk reduction payload called Wildcard, a software-defined radio that will experiment with links from LEO to tactical radios. A data fusion experiment with the ability to host advanced third party algorithms, known as massless payloads, is intended for an upcoming Loft Orbital mission.

«It’s important that we get the design right», says Paul «Rusty» Thomas, the program manager for Blackjack. «We focused first on buses and payloads, then the autonomous mission management system, which we call Pit Boss. We anticipate we’ll begin integrating the first two military payloads next summer with launch via rideshare in late 2021, followed by the remainder of the Blackjack demonstration sub-constellation in 2022».

Blackjack aims to demonstrate sensors that are low in size, weight, and power, and that can be mass produced to fit on many different buses from many different providers, for less than $2 million per payload.

The agency is evaluating buses from Airbus, Blue Canyon Technologies, and Telesat, all of which have progressed through preliminary design review. The final selection of buses will happen in 2020. The program recently completed preliminary design review for Pit Boss, selecting SEAKR as the primary performer for the on-orbit autonomy system. The agency also awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin as the satellite integrator.

Several sensor payloads are under consideration for the Blackjack demonstration sub-constellation, including Overhead Persistent InfraRed (OPIR) from Collins Aerospace and Raytheon; radio frequency systems from Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, Trident, and Systems & Technology Research; position, navigation, and timing from Northrop Grumman; optical inter-satellite links from SA Photonics; and electro-optical/infrared from L3Harris. The program also recently completed a Small Business Innovation Research contract with Augustus Aerospace to work on an Army Space and Missile Defense Command-related payload.

Over the next few months, the program will run simulations to test payloads in virtual constellations of all types of missions. The goal is to show interoperability between the commoditized buses and the various payloads being considered.

«We need to show the constellations can move the right amount of data and support the data fusion and command and control we want from Pit Boss», Thomas said. «From there, we will start building the actual hardware. By late next spring, we will have hardware and then spend next summer focused on satellite-level qualification for launch readiness in late 2021».

VORTEX engine

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), the global aerospace and national security leader owned by Eren and Fatih Ozmen, reached a major milestone in the advancement of hypersonic propulsion with its patented VORTEX engine, advancing to the next phase of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Operational Fires (OpFires) program.

SNC Leverages VORTEX Engine Technology for DARPA’s OpFires Program

Through OpFires, SNC is extending its hybrid VORTEX engine capabilities to advanced, deep throttling, restartable propulsion systems. The system utilizes benign solid fuel with a liquid oxidizer, both of which are storable on Earth and in space. Recent testing shows positive results in being able to package significant energy into a small volume that will have the ability for deep throttling and smooth restart capabilities on command. «The VORTEX flows integrated into the hybrid significantly improves performance of the hybrid engine», said Doctor Marty Chiaverini, director of Propulsion Systems at SNC.

«This program opens up a new market for SNC for preplanned or on-demand propulsion control capabilities that are applicable to both military and beyond Earth orbit propulsion capabilities», said Tom Crabb, vice president of SNC’s Propulsion & Environmental Systems business unit. «Deep throttling and restart capabilities expand the tools for smart and unpredictable trajectories for various vehicles and systems».

The first two phases of DARPA’s OpFires program focus on the propulsion technologies required to deliver diverse payloads to a variety of ranges. Since Phase 1 contract award, SNC has made critical discoveries in advanced rocket motor technology for the OpFires upper stage, completing more than 30 motor trials from subscale through full size. SNC hopes to demonstrate these engines in flight and offer the engines to new, promising vehicle systems.

In addition to the deep throttling, restartable, storable system for DARPA, SNC is expanding its propulsion capabilities and products with near-term flight for its Dream Chaser spaceplane Reaction Control System, maturation of upper stage engines and development of other liquid storable engines for spacecraft, lunar, and other exploration and protection applications. SNC is also co-investing with the U.S. Air Force (USAF) for development of the engine for USAF needs.

Manta Ray Program

DARPA’s Manta Ray Program aims to demonstrate critical technologies for a new class of long duration, long range, payload-capable Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs). UUVs that operate for extended durations without the need for on-site human logistics support or maintenance offer the potential for persistent operations during longer term deployments.

Artist’s concept of Manta Ray UUV

DARPA has selected three companies to focus on development of an integrated solution for Manta Ray technology and operational areas. They are:

  • Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Laboratories;
  • Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation;
  • Navatek, LLC.

A fourth company, Metron, Inc., will work toward critical technology and solutions specific to the field of undersea energy harvesting techniques at depths necessary for successful operations.

«The Manta Ray program aims to increase at-sea operational capacity and capabilities for the combatant commander while minimizing disruptions to current operations by remaining independent of crewed vessels and ports once deployed», said CDR Kyle Woerner, the Manta Ray program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. «If successful, this new class of UUVs would allow operational flexibility and relief of workload for both traditional host ships and servicing ports».

The Manta Ray program plans to advance key technologies that will benefit future UUV designs, including, but not limited to new energy management and energy harvesting techniques at operationally relevant depths; low-power, high-efficiency propulsion; and new approaches to mitigate biofouling, corrosion, and other material degradation for long duration missions. The program also seeks process improvements, including mission management approaches for extended durations while accounting for dynamic maritime environments; unique methods for leveraging existing maritime datasets and new maritime parameters for high-efficiency navigation; and new low-power means of underwater detection and classification of hazards.

Manta Ray is targeting three phases of development, culminating with a fully integrated demonstration vehicle completing an underwater mission in a dynamic, open-ocean environment.

Glide Breaker

Aerojet Rocketdyne has been awarded a contract worth up to $19.6 million by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop enabling technologies for an advanced hypersonic defense interceptor known as Glide Breaker.

Artist’s concept of Glide Breaker (Credit: DARPA)

«Advancing hypersonic technology is a national security imperative», said Eileen Drake, Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and president. «Our team is proud to apply our decades of experience developing hypersonic and missile propulsion technologies to the Glide Breaker program».

According to DARPA, the Glide Breaker program intends to advance the United States’ means to counter hypersonic vehicles. The effort aims to develop and demonstrate a technology that is critical for enabling an advanced interceptor capable of engaging maneuvering hypersonic threats in the upper atmosphere.

Aerojet Rocketdyne supplies both solid-fueled and air-breathing propulsion systems for hypersonic flight. The company provided both types of systems for the joint Air Force-DARPA-NASA X-51A WaveRider, which completed the first practical hypersonic flight of a hydrocarbon-fueled and -cooled scramjet-powered vehicle. More recently, the company successfully completed a series of subscale propulsion-system test firings as part of DARPA’s Operational Fires (OpFires) program, which is an effort to develop a ground-launched hypersonic missile for tactical use.