The USAF’s new combat drone is an A.I. fighter jet that flies itself

The U.S. Air Force last week completed the first test flight of its new stealth fighter drone, the XQ-58A Valkyrie. The Valkyrie lifted off at Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona on March 5 and was in the air for 76 minutes. Though the Air Force is often secretive about its emerging technology, it loosened the reins a bit sharing a brief 15-second clip showcasing this milestone maiden flight.

The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator is a long-range, high subsonic unmanned air vehicle with a range over 2,000 miles and flight speeds up to 652 miles per hour. It can take off from a runway like a plane or launch into the air via a rocket. It was designed to fly alongside a piloted aircraft and provide mission support as part of the Air Force’s concept “Loyal Wingman” program. Theoretically, the UAV can assist in surveillance, participate in electronic warfare and even fire upon an enemy target if needed. In the future, the military could equip these loyal wingman drones with artificial intelligence, sensitive surveillance equipment, and advanced weaponry. Soldiers could stay out of harm’s way by using these high-tech UAVs to fly high-risk missions into enemy territory.

The Air Force Research Laboratory contracted with San Diego-based Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems to develop the Valkyrie long-range unmanned aerial vehicle. The project falls under the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) initiative which is focused on developing faster and cheaper tactical aircraft. The XQ-58A drone took 2.5 years to progress from contract award to first test flight and costs an estimated $2-3 million per drone to build. This price tag puts each drone on a par with a single Patriot missile and is significantly less expensive than the average fighter jet which costs upward of $100 million per aircraft.

XQ-58A-Valkyrie-drone

Last week’s maiden voyage was the first, but not the final test flight for the stealth combat drone. The Air Force plans to conduct a total of five test flights in two separate phases. Future test flights will evaluate system functionality and gauge aerodynamic performance as well as refine both the launch and recovery systems. Kratos isn’t the only defense company working on combat UAVs. Boeing Australia recently announced plans to make an A.I.-equipped fighter drone that can serve as a “loyal wingman” for piloted fighter jets.

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