A Pentagon effort to incubate businesses in Silicon Valley may be bearing some of its first fruit, as a San Diego company rolls out a set of new drones it says could accompany human-piloted fighters into combat.
On Tuesday, Kratos Defense and Security Solutions officially announced two new classes of drones designed to function as robotic wingmen for fighter pilots. Development of the UTAP-22 Mako has been funded by the Defense Department’s Silicon Valley laboratory, dubbed DIUx. Separately, the company showed off a larger, 30-foot-long drone backed by the Air Force called the XQ-222 Valkyrie, with a range of more than 4,000 nautical miles. Kratos is promoting the pilotless planes at the Paris Air Show next week in preparation for a new round of testing.
Aviation experts say the speed and altitude capacities published by Kratos suggest the drones could fly in tandem with an F-16 or F-35 fighter. The company says it has already successfully flown the drones alongside manned aircraft and that it will soon embark on an advanced round of testing above California’s Mojave Desert employing a more sophisticated array of sensing technology to determine just how autonomous the drones can be.
In those tests, a pilot in an accompanying airplane is preparing to monitor the drones from a small Android tablet. For most of the flight, the drone will attempt to maneuver without the help of a human, relying on artificial intelligence technology and sensors to mimic the nearby plane’s movements.
That test scheduled for July is to be followed by a “demonstrated military exercise” sometime in the second half of this year, the company said.
“In order to exploit the maneuverability of one of these aircraft, you need to have the sensing ability of when to exploit it,” said Dave Deptula, a retired Air Force general who now serves as dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, an Arlington think tank.
The effort comes as the military explores what role robotics might play in the wars of the future; some argue that unmanned systems are more likely to accompany — but not replace — manned systems like the F-35 Joint Strike fighter. The Navy is exploring similar options in using autonomous submarines that can scout the ocean floor and seek out mines.
The use of robotic systems to augment manned aircraft could theoretically make air combat safer if, for example, autonomous aircraft can be sent ahead to absorb an enemy’s attacks first. The aircraft are also less expensive to deploy than manned aircraft; the reusable drones cost between $2 million and $3 million.
The Mako represents a step forward from the unmanned Predator and Reaper drones now largely used for aerial surveillance and for targeted attacks in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“These systems can conduct fully autonomous missions,” said Steven Fendley, president of the company’s unmanned systems division.
Officials at DIUx did not respond to requests for comment on the new Kratos drones. Former defense secretary Ashton B. Carter helped launch the Silicon Valley outpost in 2015, tasking the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental with finding and funding innovative technologies outside greater Washington. The effort had its early stumbles: Carter reshuffled its leadership team and members of Congress took steps to limited the agency’s funding, saying it lacked direction.
Kratos’ $12.6 million contract with DIUx to explore the autonomous use of high-speed drones is tiny compared with larger military hardware development contracts, which can reach into the billions of dollars. Still, observers see the successful testing of an autonomous drone as step forward for the agency.
“This is an example of where DIUx went out and found innovative ideas and are funding them, and it’s an excellent way to reinforce companies that are not already fully established,” said Deptula, the retired Air Force general.