Air Force's Future Stealthy Combat Drone Could Use AI to Learn

The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator, a long-range, high subsonic unmanned air vehicle completed its inaugural flight March 5, 2019 at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona. (U.S. Air Force photo)
The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator, a long-range, high subsonic unmanned air vehicle completed its inaugural flight March 5, 2019 at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona. (U.S. Air Force photo)

SALON DU BOURGET, PARIS -- The company working with the U.S. Air Force to create what may be the service's first artificial intelligence drone is gearing up for the final few demo tests, according to an industry official.

Kratos Defense completed its second test flight of the XQ-58A Valkyrie unmanned aerial vehicle -- which in the near future could accommodate AI -- on June 11 at test ranges in Yuma, Arizona. And "the final three flights are going to occur over the next several months before the end of 2019, [possibly] into early 2020," Kratos Defense CEO and President Eric DeMarco told Military.com here at the Paris Air Show.

The latest news comes as the Air Force is looking to expedite the prototype program. Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, said Monday there's potential to field some Valkyrie drones faster -- roughly 20 to 30 -- for experimentation before the service syncs manned fighters with the drone by 2023.

DeMarco said Roper's idea doesn't come as a surprise.

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That way, "the operator can start experimenting with them and utilizing them, and that would tie right into a path for 2023 operational capability," DeMarco said. Kratos said each expendable drone runs between $2 million to $3 million. Valkyrie completed its 76-minute maiden flight in March.

Parallel to Kratos' work, the Air Force Research Lab is working on the "Skyborg" program, aimed at pairing AI with a human in the cockpit. "The Air Force Research Lab has been nothing short of an incredible partner. It's their brainpower, it's their facilities, their capability. They're A-plus," DeMarco said.

The goal is to incorporate the Skyborg network into Valkyrie alongside manned fighters, so the machine can learn how to fly and even train with its pilot. The drones will then be sent out alongside F-35 Joint Strike Fighters or other fighters to scout enemy territory ahead of a strike, or to gather intel for the pilot in the formation.

This "is about augmenting the man fighter, not replacing them, and putting all types of interesting payloads on the Valkyrie to really emphasize that mission package," DeMarco said.

He said Valkyrie, a long-range, high-subsonic UAV, has incorporated a lot of lessons from Kratos' other subsonic drone, the Mako.

"Mako continues to fly for various customers with all types of payloads," he said. It was designed to carry a 350-pound internal and/or 500-pound external payload, as well as 100-pound payloads on each wing. That includes electronic warfare or jamming equipment, infrared search and track sensors, and offensive and defensive weapons.

"Mako [is] a test bed, running a parallel path with the Valkyrie, so when the Valkyrie is ready, those payloads can more easily be ported over and integrated into Valkyrie because they've already been demonstrated in an unmanned platform," DeMarco said.

The Valkyrie specifically can "carry four small diameter bombs internally," he added.

While other defense contractors such as Boeing Co. are also working on manned-unmanned teaming, DeMarco said Kratos -- which first demonstrated manned-unmanned teaming in 2015 -- is readying to produce in bulk. "We're going to start ordering long-lead items, such as engines, because if we're intending to start delivering these airplanes at the end of next year, we need to get going on them now."

He touted Kratos' ability to create drones that don't need a safe space to land.

"All of our drones, including the Valkyrie, are runway independent; they're launched off a rail … and [are] independent on recovery," DeMarco said. "We can land via parachute on land or in the water."

He continued, "Our drones can be pre-deployed in various locations. Let's say, for example, a container or some sort of door opens. The railway slides out, and a squadron has launched. Some of our customers believe that is critically important for potential future conflict."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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