Air Force Conducts Flight Tests With Subsonic, Autonomous Drones

  • 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)
  • Dave Freeman, 412th Test Wing Emerging Technologies Combined Test Force, hand launches a small unmanned aircraft system at Edwards AFB, California, Feb. 27, 2019. The ET CTF conducted its first autonomy flight test Feb. 26-28. (U.S. Air Force photo/Kenji Thuloweit)
    Dave Freeman, 412th Test Wing Emerging Technologies Combined Test Force, hand launches a small unmanned aircraft system at Edwards AFB, California, Feb. 27, 2019. The ET CTF conducted its first autonomy flight test Feb. 26-28. (U.S. Air Force photo/Kenji Thuloweit)

The Air Force is hitting new milestones with drone technology, testing out an unmanned system that flies close to the speed of sound and another that can operate autonomously on missions.

The Air Force Research Lab, in partnership with Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems, recently flew the XQ-58A Valkyrie, which the service describes as a long-range, high subsonic unmanned aerial vehicle. The drone made its 76-minute maiden flight Tuesday over the Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, according to a service release.

Meanwhile, the 412th Test Wing's Emerging Technologies Combined Test Force out of Edwards Air Force Base, California, conducted first flights of its Testing of Autonomy in Complex Environments system, or TACE, on a small Lynx drone, according to a separate release.

The high-subsonic Valkyrie could fit into the service's efforts to create unmanned combat aerial vehicles similar to the unmanned fighter concept it has been experimenting with for some time. Last week, Boeing Co. debuted its concept for a "loyal wingman" fighter drone that would work autonomously alongside fourth- and fifth-generation fighter aircraft for the Australian government.

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"XQ-58A is the first example of a class of UAV that is defined by low procurement and operating costs while providing game-changing combat capability," Doug Szczublewski, AFRL's XQ-58A program manager, said in the release.

The Air Force is scheduled to keep testing Valkyrie.

"The XQ-58A has a total of five planned test flights in two phases with objectives that include evaluating system functionality, aerodynamic performance and launch and recovery systems," the release states.

Meanwhile, the Air Force's tests of autonomy are expanding the range of the possible for unmanned aerial systems.

The TACE technology is halfway between autonomous artificial intelligence system and an aircraft's autopilot, officials at Edwards said in a release. The base tested the system for three days.

Tested on the Lynx drone, the system "monitors the commands being sent from the autonomy to the autopilot and then sends back the aircraft state information such as position, speed and orientation to the autonomy," officials said.

"Today we had an autonomous algorithm commanding the aircraft without any direct human involvement," said Capt. Riley Livermore, 412th Test Wing ET-CTF Autonomy lead, in a news release. "We call it human ON the loop as opposed to most remotely piloted aircraft that are human IN the loop."

Officials said the TACE payload technology has not been designed for a specific aircraft, but can "be used on different aircraft sizes for test."

The unit plans to conduct future tests, and is expected to fly it on a much larger drone that can fly up to 250 miles per hour this summer. Both the Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper can reach those speeds.

TACE could act as the node carrying or distributing backup information a pilot may need in a signal or communications denied environment.

"Using TACE, a single live aircraft can fly in formation with a virtual wingman, with simulated sensors, flying in a simulated GPS-denied environment," Livermore said.

TACE has the ability "to allow simulated entities to interact with live aircraft," the release said. This configuration is known as the Live-Virtual-Constructive (LVC).

"The beautiful thing about TACE and LVC is that it can stress the autonomous algorithms without jeopardizing the safety of flight," Livermore said.

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

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