The XQ-58 autonomous aircraft will begin testing at Eglin Air Force Base. The 96th Test Wing announced that the Air Force had transferred two XQ-58 Valkyrie drones to the 40th Flight Test Squadron at Eglin—a critical step as the service works to develop and deploy unmanned, self-operating aircraft that can work with human-crewed aircraft.
Senior Vice President Jeffrey Herro of Kratos’ unmanned systems division told Air & Space Forces Magazine that other activities are taking place with the Valkyrie system now.
He said they were really pleased with its performance on the last few flights and are continuing to evolve other capabilities for other platforms as well.
The XQ-58s developed by Kratos will be used by the 40th FTS to test autonomous aircraft operations, airspace, and safety procedures. The 40th FTS Autonomous Aircraft Experimentation team will work with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation office to conduct the testing.
According to the 96th Test Wing, some of the testing will involve the Air Force’s Skyborg program, which aims to create an artificial intelligence-enabled unmanned aircraft control system. In addition to Skyborg program autonomy software provided by the third-party government and industry partners, testing will also include autonomy software.
Unmanned aircraft will likely play a critical part in the Air Force’s effort to create “Collaborative Combat Aircraft”—unmanned aircraft that will fly in loose formations with manned fighters, with live pilots directing them but acting independently.
Secretary Frank Kendall has listed CCA as one of the Air Force’s “Seven Operational Imperatives,” indicating his commitment to the program, with the goal of producing aircraft in the near future.
The Air Force requires test data to develop the necessary requirements and prove capabilities.
According to the release, the XQ-58 drone is currently at Eglin Air Force Base and is scheduled to fly by December, with infrastructure and logistical issues to be addressed later. However, given the urgency associated with CCA and autonomous software, the 40th Fighter Squadron’s Autonomous Aircraft Experimentation team will have to act quickly.
“The data generated during previous tests, along with feedback provided from our user community, show that in order to rapidly develop and mature tactical autonomy on an appropriate timeline, investment in, and utilization of, appropriate military range resources is required,” Matthew Niemiec, AFRL autonomous aircraft experimentation portfolio lead, said in a statement.
Major John Nygard, the team lead, has already said that he wants to begin experimenting with “crewed-uncrewed teaming display solutions” by the fall of 2023.
The XQ-58 has been a component of the Skyborg program for a few years and was recently involved in Kratos’s autonomous software tests. The Valkyrie has also flown tests demonstrating features like releasing another drone while in flight and carrying technology that allows an F-35 and F-22 to share data while in flight, which were part of AFRL’s Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology portfolio.
On Nov. 3, Kratos announced that the aircraft flew at the Army’s Yuma Proving Ground and reached its goal of flying longer, higher, farther, and at a heavier weight.
Even though the 96th Test Wing’s announcement emphasized the Valkyrie’s function as a testing platform for autonomous aircraft technology, Kratos executives hope to experiment with and employ the XQ-58 in other ways.
Kratos’ unmanned systems division senior vice president Jeffrey Herro also confirmed that other activities are occurring with the Valkyrie system.
“There are other activities going on with the Valkyrie system right now,” Jeffrey Herro said. “We’re very happy with the performance of it. The performance on these last flights … was very good. We’re really happy with that. And we’re continuing to evolve other capabilities for other platforms. … Because at the end of the day, we’re building an airplane. And we’ve presented this airplane as a multi-mission-capable system.”