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USAF Conducts First AI Flight of Pilotless Aircraft

XQ-58A Valkyrie Advances DOD’s LCAAT Aspirations

Utilizing complex Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms and sophisticated automation technologies, United States Air Force researchers have successfully performed the first unmanned, wholly autonomous flight of an aircraft.

The three-hour sortie was flown by an XQ-58A Valkyrie, an experimental, stealthy, Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) designed and built by Kratos Defense & Security Solutions for the United States Air Force's Low Cost Attritable Strike Demonstrator (LCASD) program.

The flight was undertaken at Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base on 25 July 2023—so stated the Air Force Research Lab, which partnered with Kratos in the XQ-58A’s development and created the AI algorithms salient to aircraft’s function.

USAF Research Lab commander Brigadier General Scott Cain asserted: “AI will be a critical element to future warfighting and the speed at which we’re going to have to understand the operational picture and make decisions. We need the coordinated efforts of our government, academia, and industry partners to keep pace.”

The XQ-58A Valkyrie falls within the USAF Research Laboratory’s Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) portfolio, the objectives of which include producing UCAVs alacritously by dint of developing, maturing, and implementing superior design tools commercial manufacturing processes. The term attritable is an adjective denoting the ability to undergo attrition. LCAAT aircraft are intended to escort USAF F-22 Raptors and F-35 Lightning II fighter aircraft during combat missions and deploy weapons or surveillance systems in support of such.

Controlled by a parent aircraft, the XQ-58A acts as a loyal wingman —a capacity in which it performs aerial scouting, lays down defensive fire, or absorbs enemy fire (attritable). The contraption’s stealth capability derives, in part, of its chined-edge trapezoidal fuselage, V-tail, and S-shaped air-intake. The XQ-58 is capable of operating as part of a swarm of drones, either autonomously or under the control of a human pilot. Moreover, the aircraft—depending upon mission requirements—is able to make conventional takeoffs and landings or be launched from so-called nondescript launch modules, the likes of support-ships, shipping-containers, and semi-truck trailers.

Kratos officials maintain their company is capable of producing 250 to five-hundred Valkyries per-year at a unit-cost of $4-million (at an annual production rate of fifty aircraft), and possibly less than $2-million (at an annual production rate of over one-hundred aircraft).

The 25 July test-flight occasioned the culmination of a multiyear partnership that began with the Skyborg Vanguard program—a USAF initiative undertaken for purpose of developing unmanned combat aerial vehicles intended to accompany manned fighter aircraft into combat.

The Valkyrie used in the aforementioned test-flight arrived at Eglin AFB in 2022. The aircraft is rocket-launched off a rail-system and controlled from either a ground-station of an airborne fighter jet.



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