Key point: Wingman drones could change the way major air forces fight.
The U.S. Air Force could be months away from deciding whether to put into production its first, fighter-style “wingman drone.”
But California unmanned aerial vehicle-maker Kratos, builder of the Air Force’s prototype XQ-58A Valkyrie wingman UAV, is confident the flying branch will decide to proceed.
Kratos has begun placing engine orders in anticipation of receiving first series production contracts for the XQ-58, Jane’s reported.
“Reporting the company’s second-quarter 2019 results in a [July 31, 2019] earnings call, Kratos president and CEO Eric DeMarco said that the company was confident that Valkyrie was “on track for initial production and a programme of record,” according to Jane’s.
The company has begun ordering engines “for expected Valkyrie production to meet anticipated future customer delivery requirements,” DeMarco said.
“The XQ-58A demonstrator is powered by an off-the-shelf Williams International FJ33 twin-spool turbofan,” Jane’s noted. “It has not been confirmed if this engine type is being retained for follow-on production.”
The Air Force’s wingman drone initiative is moving quickly. The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Skyborg program is developing artificial intelligence for the wider wingman-drone effort. To develop the hardware, AFRL is experimenting with copies of the subsonic XQ-58.
The Air Force wants an early version of a wingman drone to be ready for combat by 2023. Kratos is betting that the service will tap the XQ-58 as the basis for a combat-ready wingman ‘bot.
The Valkyrie’s first flight took place in March 2019. The 29-feet-long, jet-powered XQ-58 on June 11, 2019 took off for its second test flight over Yuma, Arizona. The Air Force and Kratos plan to conduct five test sorties during this phase of the XQ-58’s development.
The Air Force also has begun testing software that could help its future robot wingmen pull hard maneuvers in aerial combat.
The initial software test took place at Edwards Air Force Base in California on July 25, 2019. The Air Force’s 412th Test Wing’s Emerging Technologies Combined Test Force installed new flight-control software on a small, radio-controlled drone.