The U.S. Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force are making progress with efforts to develop unmanned jets that can serve as "loyal wingmen" for manned counterparts. Under the concept, robotic systems can accompany fighters as decoys, weapons carriers or sensor platforms.
The U.S. Air Force's effort is dubbed the XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator, which is an unmanned, long-range, "high subsonic" aircraft, according to the service. The platform is being developed by Kratos Defense and Security Solutions and falls under the Air Force Research Laboratory's low-cost attritable aircraft technology portfolio.
"We've been flying very regularly since March of 2019 as we demonstrate the system and evaluate different mission capabilities, and effectively perform different mission scenarios in these flights," said Steve Fendley, president of Kratos' unmanned systems division.
The system's first flight lasted for over an hour at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, the Air Force said in a news release. The service will hold multiple flight tests over two phases to test the system's functionality, aerodynamic performance and launch and recovery systems.
The most recent flight test was in January, according to Kratos. The company was awarded a $40.8 million cost-share contract from the Air Force Research Lab in 2016 to develop the design.
Kratos developed Valkyrie from a clean-sheet design, and is intended to be a low-cost, affordable solution for tactical unmanned aerial systems operations, Fendley said. This year, the company is focusing on integrating mission systems into the aircraft. The system is 27 feet long and runway-independent, according to Kratos.
In October, the company found an anomaly, which was fixed in time for the January flight, Fendley said. The problem occurred with the aircraft's parachute recovery system. The system is not included in the final operational design, he noted.
"We completely redesigned that part of the system," he said, noting that the previous one had been provided by subcontractors. "We took that part over ... and demonstrated it successfully. It worked perfectly in our last flight."
Kratos has already begun manufacturing the vehicles ahead of an expected Air Force production contract award. The company is working on 12 aircraft and opened a new production facility in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, over a year ago. Planes are scheduled to begin rolling off the line in the first quarter of 2021, Fendley noted.
"My expectation is by...