on March 26, 2021, U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory successfully completed the sixth flight test of the XQ-58 Valkyrie, which involved the first release of a payload from the drone’s internal weapons bay over Yuma Proving Ground (Arizona).
The payload itself was another drone, the tube-launched Altius-600 Small Unmanned Aerial System (SUAS). A photo accompanying today’s press release also shows the ALTIUS-600 drone being ejected rearward from the bay, via what appears to be a downward-angled Common Launch Tube (CLT).
“This is the sixth flight of the Valkyrie and the first time the payload bay doors have been opened in flight,” said Alyson Turri, demonstration program manager. “In addition to this first SUAS separation demonstration, the XQ-58A flew higher and faster than previous flights.”
“Successful operation of the internal weapons release system/function along with further aerodynamic envelope increases continues to assert the incredible capability and cost-per-performance value of the low-cost attritable XQ-58A Valkyrie,” Steve Fendley, President of Kratos Unmanned Systems Division, said. “Additionally, this unique and key mission function success adds an exclamation point to the 30-month development of the Valkyrie system by the Kratos and AFRL team, which resulted in a pre-production system with substantial operational capability, not simply a proof-of-concept flight demonstrator.”
The test was conducted by the Air Force, working together with Kratos, which produces the Valkyrie, and Area-I, responsible for the ALTIUS 600, which the Air Force describes as a small, unmanned aircraft system, or SUAS.
On April 1, Anduril Industries announced it had bought Area-I, which would continue to operate under that name as a wholly-owned subsidiary.
While the release of a store from its internal payload bay was the highlight, the sixth flight of the Valkyrie included other important test points, too.
The Kratos drone continued to expand its operating envelope by flying “higher and faster than previous flights,” Alyson Turri, the demonstration program manager, said, although no performance figures were provided.
The Valkyrie involved in the test also appears to be the third airframe completed so far, wearing the Air Force serial number 15-8003. The initial XQ-58A, serial number 15-8001, took its first flight in March 2019, but suffered a mishap later the same year while completing its third flight.
15-8001 has been used as part of the AFRL’s Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) program, which has served as a stepping stone to the Skyborg project, which is focused on the development of various technologies that go into semi-autonomous “loyal wingman” type unmanned aircraft and, eventually, fully autonomous unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV). In December 2020, the Air Force announced that it had hired Kratos, as well as Boeing and General Atomics, to build actual prototype drones to carry the Skyborg suite of systems.
A third XQ-58A, 15-8002, has been used as a platform to explore attritable drone concepts of operation, as well as a testbed for new communications gateways to help different stealthy aircraft “talk” to each other. Attritable refers to systems that are designed to be low-cost enough that they can be employed in high-risk situations that might preclude the use of a more costly, exquisite asset. It’s not clear how many XQ-58As the Air Force presently intends to acquire for its various test efforts.