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Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D. "helicarrier" -- fictional (for now). Image source: Marvel.

Ever since Marvel Comics first popularized the idea, the world has been waiting for someone to invent an honest-to-goodness flying aircraft carrier. Now, DARPA says it's going to give it a try.

Baby steps
Not all at once, though. At least, not initially. Late last month, DARPA -- the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- announced the launch of its "Gremlins" program. While not quite a true Marvel-icious flying "helicarrier," Gremlins sounds pretty ambitious in its own right.

Essentially, the plan is to design a fleet of small, unmanned aerial vehicles that can both take off from and land back aboard a larger aircraft. These aerial drones would be deployed on "intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and other modular, non-kinetic" missions, says DARPA. (Translation: No shooting.) Offensive missions would initially be limited to electronic warfare -- jamming radar systems, spoofing the radar signatures of larger warplanes, and disrupting enemy communications.

Now, although it's not been widely publicized, the U.S. military actually already possesses drones that perform these kids of missions. Miniature Air-Launched Decoys ("MALDs") built by Raytheon (NYSE:RTN) and their radar-jamming MALD-J cousins are two prime examples of disposable e-warfare drones developed for the Pentagon:

Mald
Raytheon's less-than-300-pound MALD drone tricks foes with a radar signature that makes it look like a full-size fighter jet. Image source: Raytheon.

Northrop Grumman's (NYSE:NOC) new Bat drone is believed to be capable of carrying out similar missions:

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This Bat's job is to prevent bad guys from seeing in the dark (or light). Image source: Northrop Grumman.

And Boeing's (NYSE:BA) CHAMP drone is an even more capable e-warfare drone, able to knock out the lights and power of individual buildings with targeted, localized, electromagnetic pulses:

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Boeing's "CHAMP" (Counter-electronics High-powered microwave Advanced Missile Project) project is very hush-hush. But here's what we think one might look like. Image source: Boeing.

The problem, from the Pentagon's point of view, is that most such e-warfare drones are not designed to be recovered after use. Built without landing gear, they're "disposable" drones -- fired, and then forgotten. But DARPA thinks recoverable and reusable drones might make more sense. If one drone can be landed, tuned up, and reused multiple times, this would necessarily drive down the program's cost.

That's what "Gremlins" intends to prove: that miniature air-launched drones can also become miniature air-landing drones, relaunchable and relandable as many as 20 times before being replaced -- and all at an affordable price.

Building blocks
DARPA will build on multiple other technologies that it has already developed to put Gremlins into action. For example, DARPA was the agency behind developing automatic aerial refueling systems that are today used to gas up fighter jets in midair. This same technology could be used to more accurately fit Drone "Tab A" into Landing "Slot B" on an aerial drone carrier.

DARPA's also made significant -- and swift -- progress with its TERN program to automate drone landings aboard small warships, and even land vehicles. The Agency thinks some of the devices it's testing for TERN might also be applicable to an in-air drone deployer.

As for the vehicle that will house all of these whiz-bang technologies, DARPA appears to have chosen a plain-vanilla C-130 Hercules as its initial test bed (in other words, no helicarriers right out of the gate). DARPA believes drones might deploy from almost any aircraft -- "bombers or transport aircraft, as well as from fighters and other small, fixed-wing platforms." But landing is a bit trickier, and the Pentagon wants to use one of its larger planes to give drones a bigger landing pad to aim at.

If they build it, who will come?
It's still early innings in the Gremlins game. The size and scope of this program -- and its dollar value -- are unknown. That said, DARPA says its aim is to eventually have "groups of Gremlins" launching and landing aboard C-130s. That sounds like Gremlins has the potential to evolve into a very large-scale program, involving scores, if not hundreds, of aircraft, once the technology is in place.

For now, DARPA is still just collecting information on what's feasible, and who is interested in building it. Present plans call for DARPA to hold a "Proposers Day" to see what's available on Sept.24. The list of attendees is not yet known, but I'd bet good money that everyone who's anyone in unmanned aerial vehicles -- including all three of the big defense players named above -- will be in attendance.

As soon as we know more, you'll know more.

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DARPA envisions U.S. warships capturing drones at sea with remote-operated cranes. Could an air crane work at altitude as well? Image source: DARPA.

Rich Smith owns shares of Raytheon. You can find him on Motley Fool CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 260 out of more than 75,000 rated members.

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