Gremlins are mythical imps that destroy airplanes. During World War II, Royal Air Force pilots blamed the creatures for their frequent on-board mechanical woes. Author and RAF ace Roald Dahl later spun Gremlins into a successful children’s book, painting them as 1940s eco-terrorists who sabotaged aircraft in retaliation for the airplane factory having destroyed their forest home. Gremlins were subsequently incorporated into Bugs Bunny cartoons that some of us grew up watching.
Fantastical as they are, Gremlins are pretty much the last thing we’d expect DARPA to create. But they reckon they’ve got the technology to, and on Friday they announced that they’re actually trying.
Unsurprisingly, they’re not funding a bunch of multicolored little men with hacksaws and hatchets. Instead they’re taking the drone swarm approach.
The idea is that a bomber deploys a group of unmanned aerial vehicles that locate nearby enemy fighters and swarm around them. As Defense One explains,
Like a team of silver-suited circus performers, they encircle the jet in a precise and choreographed dance and begin a series of electromagnetic attacks, jamming the radar and the communications. The jet’s instruments begin to behave strangely. The pilot takes aim but there are too many of them. He’s been swarmed. As quickly as they appear, the drones are gone, vanished into the underbelly of a low-flying bomber that’s now climbing away. With his communications and targeting equipment fried, the pilot must return to base. He’s been effectively neutralized and the culprits are nowhere to be seen.
DARPA isn’t funding the project because they love children’s books and cartoons; Gremlins, which they’re actually calling them, would potentially be a much more cost-effective solution to downing enemy planes. They’d certainly be cheaper to produce than conventional jet fighters, and unlike missiles they’re re-usable. “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,” DARPA program manager Dan Pratt explains.