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US Air Force MQ-9 UAS completes autonomous takeoff and landing trials

MQ-9 Reaper sits on the flight line as the sun sets at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., Nov. 20, 2019.
US Air Force file photo

The US Air Force Lifecycle Management Center’s MQ-9 program office has completed the testing of the unmanned aerial systems’ automatic takeoff and landing capability (ATLC) Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

ATLC will allow the MQ-9 UAS fleet to take off and land with automated inputs from sensors onboard the platform, creating a more flexible and dynamic weapon system to meet current and future operational requirements.

Additionally, the successful testing of ATLC validated the incorporation of performing an automated landing of the MQ-9 under a lost-link scenario, increased weight configurations, heavy crosswinds, and the ability of the MQ-9 to perform Aerial Runway Surveys of potential divert locations while in flight.

Incorporation of ATLC is the first step in enabling autonomy on the MQ-9 platform, laying the groundwork for future enhancements to further integrate its capabilities into joint operations. The dynamic and flexible foundation of ATLC postures the Air Force and its partners to evolve the MQ-9 platform for participation in Great Power Competition operations, while automation helps to alleviate MQ-9 forward deployed footprint.

Utilizing Test Resource Management Center (TRMC), High Speed Systems Test (HSST) SkyRange facilities at the Southern California Logistics Airport (SCLA), the MQ-9 Team and contractor General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) were able to conduct ATLC testing at the civilian runway in Victorville, California. The air force said the collaborative effort from all parties resulted in the completion of ATLC three weeks ahead of schedule and the capability being ready for integration in the next release of weapon system software updates.

“This new capability will allow the MQ-9 to be more flexible and responsive for flight crews and the battlefield airmen in need of MQ-9 capabilities,” said Peter DeArmond, lead program manager for ATLC. “It allows the MQ-9 to carry larger payloads with increased weight for automated takeoff and landings and respond quicker to mission changes as the environment in which this platform operates continues to evolve.”

The MQ-9 is not the only platform developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) that is supporting efforts to introduce more autonomy to unmanned systems. A recent campaign with the company’s Avenger UAS allowed DARPA to test its Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment (CODE) collaborative autonomy system. DARPA’s CODE program leverages artificial intelligence to extend mission capabilities by improving the ability of UAS to carry out operations in denied or contested airspace without continuous control by a dedicated pilot and sensor operator.