The Air Force recently conducted test flights of the XQ-58A Valkyrie drone, taking the unmanned aerial vehicle to higher altitudes than previous tests.
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), alongside the UAV's maker, Kratos Defense, completed the tests at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, on Jan. 23, the service announced in a release.
Researchers were able to push the long-range, high-subsonic UAV to an undisclosed higher altitude to "gather data in an operational environment more representative of real-world flight conditions," the release said.
"Flying at this altitude helped us gather important data such as vehicle response to temperature and vibration, which will prepare us as we move toward our next flight test," said Michael Wipperman, the AFRL XQ-58A program manager.
The drone is part of the Air Force's Low-Cost Attritable Strike Demonstration program, an effort to develop unmanned attack aircraft, which are intended to be reusable but cheap enough that they can be destroyed without significant cost.
The latest experiment marks the first time the Valkyrie has been in a test flight since a mishap in October 2019.
On Oct. 9, the Valkyrie was hit by "high surface winds" and suffered "a malfunction of the vehicle's provisional flight test recovery system." It landed in a damaged state at the testing ranges in Yuma, the Air Force said at the time. Prior to its landing, the drone conducted a successful 90-minute flight, officials said.
Without giving specifics, Wipperman said the safety accident investigation into the incident shed light on how researchers should attempt to recover the drone in future.
"We were able to show recovery for a successful flight at even higher altitudes," he said. "Given that we have overcome these challenges, we have confidence that the aircraft can continue its progression into flying in more representative conditions."
The Air Force has been working to expedite the prototype program, which in the near future could incorporate artificial intelligence. AFRL in recent months has also been working on the "Skyborg" program, aimed at pairing AI with a human in the cockpit.
The goal is to incorporate the Skyborg network into Valkyrie. The drone is meant to operate alongside manned fighters, so the machine can learn how to fly and even train with its pilot.