Ever Seen A Drone Dropping Another Drone? Take A Look At The XQ-58 Valkyrie Releasing An Altius 600 UAS

XQ-58 Valkyrie Drone Altius test
The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrates the separation of the ALTIUS-600 small UAS in a test at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground test range, Arizona on March 26, 2021. This test was the first time the weapons bay doors have been opened in flight. (Photo: Kratos/U.S. Air Force)

This first payload release from an XQ-58 Valkyrie is part of the ongoing testing of the attritable unmanned aircraft and possibly related to Kratos’ involvement in the Skyborg program.

The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory announced that it 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) on March 26, 2021. The payload itself was another drone, the tube-launched Altius-600 Small Unmanned Aerial System (SUAS).

The AFRL did not provide much info, simply saying that the test was conducted in partnership with Kratos UAS and Area-I, the manufacturers of the Valkyrie and the Altius respectively, which designed and fabricated together with the AFRL the carriage system for the SUAS and developed the software to enable the successful release. After the release of the Altius, the XQ-58A Valkyrie completed additional test points to expand its demonstrated operating envelope, similarly to previous test flights.

“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.”

As for the SUAS release, it seems that it used a system similar to the Common Launch Tube (CLT) which was already cleared for the use with the Altius-600. After the Valkyrie’s weapon bay doors opened, the tube extended in an angled position and released the 40 inches-long (about one meter) and 6 inches-diameter (about 15 cm) SUAS backwards, before it extended its retractable tail fins and 100 inches-wide (2.5 m) wings and activated its electric motor to fly away from the launcher aircraft. You can see the standard forward deployment of the Altius-600 in the following tweet showing a previous test with the UH-60 Black Hawk.

Steve Fendley, President of Kratos Unmanned Systems Division, also said, “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. 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.”

Actually, this is not the first time that a drone launched another drone, but it is however the first time we are able to see photos of the event. Last summer, General Atomics launched two Altius-600s from its MQ-1C Gray Eagle Extended Range during a Multi-Domain Operations demonstration activity with the US Army at Yuma Proving Grounds. The two Air Launched Effects (ALE), as the Army defines the Altius-600 SUAS, provided real-time full-motion video over a Tactical Scalable Mobile (TSM) network. Photos of the actual drone launch were not published, with the only available photo showing the Gray Eagle on the ground with two CLTs under its wings.

A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor and F-35A Lightning II fly in formation with the XQ-58A Valkyrie low-cost unmanned aerial vehicle over the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground testing range, Ariz., during a series of tests Dec. 9, 2020. This integrated test follows a series of gatewayONE ground tests that began during the inaugural Department of the Air Force on-ramp last year in December. (Photo: Kratos/U.S. Air Force)

Kratos currently has three flightworthy XQ-58 aircraft: AF 58-0001, which performed the first three test flights before suffering a mishap on landing, AF 58-0002, which performed the fourth and fifth test flights, and AF 58-0003, which is the one involved in the sixth flight test. A difference that was noticed on the third aircraft is the presence of the F-35’s MADL (Multifunction Advanced Data Link), with two Array Antenna Assemblies visible (and perhaps two more on the other side).

The AAAs were missing on the first two Valkyries and their presence on the third aircraft might be related to the ongoing testing of GatewayONE, a payload primarily designed to translate between MADL and IFDL (Intra-Flight Data Link), allowing F-35 and F-22 to communicate in their own native secure digital language and removing the current limitations imposed by legacy tactical data connections. This system was tested in December 2020 onboard the second Valkyrie but suffered some setbacks because of a faulty soldering point that prevented the completion of some of the test objectives.

As you may know already, the XQ-58 Valkyrie flew for the first time on March 5, 2019, about two and a half years after the contract award. The unmanned aircraft has been since involved in a flight test campaign that included the evaluation of system functionality, aerodynamic performance, and launch and recovery systems, expanding the operating envelope with each flight.

Initially only five test flights have been planned but, thanks to the Skyborg program and other unspecified customers from the Department of Defense, it looks like that the Valkyrie will continue to fly in the future. According to Eric DeMarco, Kratos CEO, 12 other Valkyries are currently in self-funded production and several are under customer contract, with planning for the next batch of drones already in progress.

Born as a result of the Low-Cost Attritable Strike Demonstrator (LCASD) Program, the XQ-58 is a low-cost, multi-mission, runway-independent UAV capable of long-range flights and high-subsonic speeds intended to support a variety of defense mission applications. These features made the Valkyrie an obvious candidate for the Skyborg program. As part of the program, Kratos, Boeing and Northrop Grumman were awarded initial indefinite-delivery / indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contracts last summer, followed by the Skyborg Delivery Order (DO) 2 contract in December for Kratos, Boeing and General Atomics to produce missionized prototypes within two years.

The contract includes three phases of design, integration, and flight testing of the prototypes while integrating multiple customer-defined mission payloads and customer-defined autonomy in coordination/cooperation with the Skyborg System Design Agent (SDA) Leidos. According to the currently available info, the prototypes will be modified variants of the XQ-58 Valkyrie, Advanced Teaming System and Avenger Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), which will have upgraded datalinks and the core Skyborg SDA software.

About Stefano D'Urso
Stefano D'Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he's also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.