General Atomics’ Sparrowhawk Drone-Launched Drone Breaks Cover

 In Air

This low-cost unmanned demonstrator could give larger drones, such as the MQ‑9 Reaper, game-changing new capabilities.


General Atomics says that it has con­duct­ed cap­tive carry tests of its Sparrowhawk, a new small drone that will be able to be launched and recov­ered in flight. The com­pa­ny says that Sparrowhawk is a demon­stra­tor and was devel­oped specif­i­cal­ly to work with other larger unmanned air­craft that it builds, such as the MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1C Gray Eagle, offer­ing an impor­tant step­ping stone to all-new capa­bil­i­ties on those exist­ing designs, as well as future ones.  

The California-based drone’s maker said the cap­tive carry tests, in which the drone was car­ried aloft by an MQ‑9, but was not launched, took place between Sept. 16 and 17, 2020. This kind of test­ing is done to gather data on how a system, as well as the launch plat­form in many cases, han­dles the stress of flight.

A pic­ture of Sparrowhawk that General Atomics released to The War Zone shows that the drone fea­tures a large main wing that is stowed par­al­lel with the main fuse­lage before launch, after which is swings 90 degrees into a deployed posi­tion. The drone also has a v‑tail and there appears to be at least one air intake for the propul­sion system on the right side. It’s unclear what type of pow­er­plant powers the air-launched drone. 

Sparrowhawk con­cept art that General Atomics posted on Twitter ear­li­er in September showed a sim­i­lar con­fig­u­ra­tion, but with two fans at the rear of the fuse­lage. The com­pa­ny has said that the small drone will offer a reduced acoustic sig­na­ture, as well as a visual one, com­pared to its larger designs, such as the MQ‑9.

It’s not clear yet how General Atomics is plan­ning to recov­er Sparrowhawk in flight and whether unmanned plat­forms, such as the MQ‑9, will be able to carry out this task. “Sparrowhawk iter­ates on the DARPA Gremlins Program,” accord­ing to the com­pa­ny. Dynetics, now a sub­sidiary of Leidos, beat out General Atomics, among others, to build the exper­i­men­tal Gremlins drone, now also designed the X‑61A, as well as the air­borne recov­ery system, which is present­ly mount­ed on a C‑130 Hercules trans­port air­craft. You can read more about Gremlins and the recov­ery con­cept, which includes the drone catch­ing the end of a cable in flight and then being reeled in, in these past War Zone pieces.

A X-61A Gremlins drone about to be reeled onto a C-130 Hercules during a flight test.

It’s hard over­state how sig­nif­i­cant Sparrowhawk, and any fur­ther devel­op­ments it spurs, could be for both General Atomics exist­ing prod­uct lines and future unmanned designs. The abil­i­ty of a large drone to launch small­er ones, all poten­tial­ly work­ing togeth­er semi-autonomous­ly or even as part of a fully-autonomous swarm, could open the door to all kinds of new capa­bil­i­ties, while reduc­ing the risk to the launch plat­form.

“Sparrowhawk extends and mul­ti­plies MQ-9-based sen­sors, reduces man­pow­er and increas­es ISR [intel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance, and recon­nais­sance] cov­er­age,” David Alexander, President of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI), said in a state­ment. Beyond pro­vid­ing far more flex­i­ble ISR over a larger geo­graph­i­cal area, Sparrowhawks may also pro­vide valu­able stand-in electronic warfare jamming or even act as decoys to blind and con­fuse enemy inte­grat­ed air defens­es, which could dras­ti­cal­ly increase the sur­viv­abil­i­ty of the launch plat­form and even help clear a path for other manned and unmanned air­craft, as well as stand-off mis­sile strikes.

Sparrowhawks could poten­tial­ly carry out their own kinet­ic strikes if they can be equipped with tra­di­tion­al explo­sive war­heads, although there is no offi­cial infor­ma­tion yet if arming these unmanned air­craft is a pos­si­bil­i­ty. If it is indeed the case, these drones might able to act as loitering munitions, which would be able to con­duct per­sis­tent sur­veil­lance of des­ig­nat­ed areas before then car­ry­ing out strikes on tar­gets of oppor­tu­ni­ty or return for recov­ery and re-launch.

General Atomics says that Sparrowhawk is intend­ed to be an attri­ta­ble plat­form, as well, despite being designed to be recov­ered and reused. Attritable designs are those that are low cost enough that com­man­ders can employ them in higher-risk envi­ron­ments that would be off-limits to more expen­sive exquis­ite types.

“With attritableONE tech­nol­o­gy that is sur­viv­able and pre­cise, Sparrowhawk is a true game chang­er,” GS-ASI’s President Alexander said. This pro­gram is part of the U.S. Air Force’s expan­sive Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) pro­gram, which is seek­ing to devel­op a host of new highly-net­worked tech­nolo­gies that will expand the ser­vice’s abil­i­ty to gather infor­ma­tion and then rapid­ly ana­lyze and dis­sem­i­nate it, includ­ing tar­get­ing data that can then be passed to other U.S. mil­i­tary units in the air, on the ground, and at sea. 

As the name implies, attritableONE is focused on devel­op­ing new attri­ta­ble unmanned air­craft. In a recent major demonstration of var­i­ous ABMS capa­bil­i­ties and asso­ci­at­ed tech­nolo­gies, an MQ-1C Gray Eagle launched an Area‑I Air-Launched, Tube-Integrated, Unmanned System 600 (ALTIUS 600) small drone, acting as an attritableONE test­bed. The ALTIUS 600 then pos­i­tive­ly iden­ti­fied a target that the MQ-1C’s onboard sen­sors had first iden­ti­fied. 

An ALTIUS 600.

The U.S. Army has also been exper­i­ment­ing with the ALTIUS 600 as part of its Air Launch Effects (ALE) effort, which also envi­sions fleets of small drones per­form­ing var­i­ous ISR, decep­tion, and other tasks, which you can read about in more detail in this past War Zone piece.

During the recent ABMS demon­stra­tion, a General Atomics MQ‑9 also car­ried a Rosetta Echo Advanced Payload (REAP) com­mu­ni­ca­tions and datalink pod, which includes tech­nol­o­gy devel­oped under gatewayONE and meshONE, which are also part of the broad­er ABMS effort. “The REAP pod has been devel­oped under con­tract from the Air National Guard and demon­strat­ed a com­mu­ni­ca­tions relay capa­bil­i­ty for both Link-16 and the Silvus meshONE net­work pro­vid­ing seam­less con­nec­tiv­i­ty between air and ground par­tic­i­pants in the demon­stra­tion area,” accord­ing to General Atomics.

The MQ-9 with the REAP pod.

All told, the Sparrowhawk looks to be an extreme­ly excit­ing devel­op­ment. It also comes at a time when the U.S. Air Force, the largest oper­a­tor of MQ-9s, is look­ing to stop buying those drones due to con­cerns that they are simply too vul­ner­a­ble to be useful during a high-end con­flict. The abil­i­ty of Reapers to launch and recov­er small­er, attri­ta­ble drones and, by exten­sion, per­form a wider array of tasks over a larger geo­graph­i­cal area, even in con­test­ed envi­ron­ments, could breathe new life into that design. 

We at The War Zone are very eager to learn more about Sparrowhawk and what it can do.

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