The U.S. Military Named Their Swarming Drones After This Fairy Tale

These “Gremlins” take their cue from WWII fighter pilots’ lucky charms

This concept drawing shows a swarm of "Gremlin" drones. DARPA

Every innovation starts with a bit of inspiration. LiveScience’s Elizabeth Palermo reports that the U.S. military are giving old superstitions and fairy tales a nod with a new drone program that could spy on enemies with swarms of autonomous flying robots.

Palermo writes that the new system, dubbed the “Gremlin” program by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), aims to do a better job of spotting enemy aircraft by using groups of multiple drones. The project will put swarms of drones in manned aircraft, launching them for missions related to reconnaissance, surveillance and intelligence.

In a release about the program, DARPA credits old flying fairy tales for the program’s impetus:

Named for the imaginary, mischievous imps that became the good luck charms of many British pilots during World War II, the program seeks to show the feasibility of conducting safe, reliable operations involving multiple air-launched, air-recoverable unmanned systems.

An artist's rendering of a flight of "Gremlin" drones. (DARPA)

In fact, writes military historian Roy Heidicker, the word “gremlin” meant two things during World War II. People blamed gremlins for destroying aircraft and messing with gears, but they also turned to them as a kind of talisman during flight, he notes. They inspired poems, drawings, handmade dolls and even official mascots, writes Felicia Lowrance, education coordinator at the National D-Day Memorial.

The legend of gremlins may seem to be indestructible, but DARPA acknowledges that theirs are intended for a shorter lifespan. They write that each drone in a gremlin swarm would have an expected lifetime of about 20 uses.

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