HomeTop StoriesAutomaker's model could yield cheaper drone wingmen: Air Force Research Lab

Automaker’s model could yield cheaper drone wingmen: Air Force Research Lab

The Air Force Research Laboratory hopes a common automotive manufacturing technique could unlock the solution to building affordable autonomous drones that can be deployed in large numbers.

AFRL’s Aerospace Systems Directorate, the service’s research and development arm, flew a General Atomics-made XQ-67A drone for the first time on Feb. 28.

But what makes this aircraft different, says Doug Meador, chief of autonomous collaborative platform capabilities at AFRL’s Aerospace Systems Directorate, is that it’s built on a chassis that could serve as the basis for a variety of other drones.

This concept, which the auto industry calls “platform sharing,” has been a standard practice there for decades, with automakers mass-producing common underlying frames on which they build multiple vehicle models. Automakers say this saves time and money, improves a car’s reliability and makes it easier to keep the parts supply chain flowing as models have fewer variations.

AFRL hopes the same approach will lead to a revolution in drone construction, allowing easier and greater mass production and reducing costs – potentially making it easier to create fleets of drone wingmen to fly alongside manned fighters.

“What if we built airplanes the same way the auto industry built cars?” Meador said in an interview Tuesday. “What if we came up with a common chassis, or a framework around which you could put different performing aircraft types, and what would that do? [for] be able to build the aircraft both quickly and more cheaply?”

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The Air Force is focusing on deploying a series of drones called Collaborative Combat Aircraft that can operate autonomously and in some cases serve as “wingmen” for fighter jets such as the F-35 and the upcoming Next Generation Air Dominance platform . The Air Force wants these CCAs to perform multiple missions, including strikes, reconnaissance and electronic warfare.

But for the CCA plan to work, the Air Force will need to be able to deploy large numbers of them relatively cheaply — a concept officials call “affordable mass.” Meador hopes this common platform structure strategy can help the Air Force save on drone construction and achieve the kind of mass critical to the CCA concept.

And the successful first flight of the XQ-67A, Meador said, showed that this concept could work even if the XQ-67 itself never transitions to a recording program. Only one XQ-67 has been built so far, but he declined to say whether more are on the way.

“It’s an alternative [development option] we haven’t had that yet,” Meador said. “We actually validated it by flying the XQ-67.”

The XQ-67A is designed to carry sensors and has the potential to fly autonomously – although it can now only be flown remotely – alongside a manned fighter to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

The first flight took place at General Atomics’ Gray Butte Flight Operations Facility near Palmdale, California, and was a relatively short, easy test, Meador said. More ambitious flight tests are planned in the near future, he said, to fully understand whether the XQ-67 can do what it was designed to do.

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“We still have to characterize some flying qualities and things like that [of the XQ-67] so we can transition it from a flight test program to a potential experimental vehicle,” Meador said.

Other drones that could be built on the same underlying chassis in the future could perform other missions, such as conducting attacks on enemy targets or electronic warfare, Meador said — but they would be a very different aircraft than an XQ-67.

“If we decided to then build an off-board weapons station, all the work that goes into that [building the XQ-67 sensor station] has already sunk and we have already paid for it,” Meador said.

The XQ-67A emerged from a 2014 AFRL initiative called Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technologies. These ideas helped shape the Air Force’s CCA concept and also led AFRL to explore the possibilities for its own platform sharing strategy.

AFRL worked with multiple suppliers on the LCAAT initiative to figure out how to make a low-cost drone that could perform a variety of missions, which evolved into a demonstration program that led Kratos Defense and Security Solutions to build the XQ-58A Valkyrie, he said .

Valkyrie experiments

The Valkyrie experiments showed that it was possible to build a drone that can fly long distances, at high subsonic speeds and with sufficient payload capacity for just a few million dollars, Meador said. So, he said, AFRL set a more ambitious goal: building a drone that could share an underlying platform with other drones performing different missions.

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This Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Platform Sharing program has answered many questions along the way, such as figuring out what the common chassis should look like, how big it could be, and how many similar structures it could share to accommodate a variety of aircraft . drones. AFRL chose General Atomics to build the XQ-67 in late 2022.

It’s difficult now to say how much the XQ-67 might cost, Meador said, because only one has been built so far and aircraft prices typically don’t stabilize until multiple units are built.

But he hopes the cost per pound of the XQ-67 air vehicle, without sensors or other additional capabilities, will be roughly in line with that of the smaller XQ-58 Valkyrie. The XQ-67 is approximately 50% heavier than the Valkyrie.

Having a common underlying structure could also make it easier and cheaper to develop next generations of drones, Meador said. For example, if the platform within a sensor drone is still up to date and only the sensors need to be modernized, that would simplify the development of the new drone, Meador says.

“It will keep costs down because we won’t have to go back and redesign everything from the ground up,” Meador said.

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