US Air Force tests XQ-58A, the runway-independent drone

The approach could be advantageous when critical infrastructure is compromised.
Ameya Paleja
Rocket powered launch of the XQ-58A Valkyrie
Rocket powered launch of the XQ-58A Valkyrie

US Air Force 

In December last year, the U.S. Air Force tested its newest XQ-58A Valkyrie drones at its Elgin base in Florida. The images of the test were shared with the public recently, and the striking part of the test was how it was conducted independent of a runway.

According to the captions released by the U.S. Air Force, the tests were conducted by the Autonomous Aircraft Experimentation team of the 40th Flight Test Squadron at the Elgin Air Force Base (AFB) on December 15, 2022. This was an operational experimentation test flight, although it did not specify whether the drones belonged to the Block-2 of the XQ-58A that the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) tested earlier in November.

The XQ-58 A Valkyrie

Developed by San Diego, California, headquartered Kratos Defense and Security Solutions, the XQ-58A Valkyrie is an "attritable drone". As per the U.S. military's usage of this terminology, it means that the drone is meant to be deployed for riskier missions in contested areas but is not completely expendable as well. The recovery of the drone is equally important so that it can be deployed again.

US Air Force tests XQ-58A, the runway-independent drone
The XQ-58A in a companion role

Given the expectations from the drone, the XQ-58A has a modular design and is capable of being configured for a variety of roles ranging from intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) to strike or electronic warfare or simply acting as a relay for communications. Additionally, the drone has demonstrated the ability to carry the payload of a smaller drone in its internal bay.

Interesting Engineering has previously reported that the drone is estimated to have a range of 3.500 miles (5,600 km) and a service ceiling of 45,000 feet (14,000 m), giving it ample scope to loiter during its missions.

The runway-independent drone

The most important aspect, however, of the drone's operation is how it can effectively be used without a runway. For its launch, the drone uses a trailer-mounted launcher. Its ascent is powered by rocket engines, following which the main engine takes over.

US Air Force tests XQ-58A, the runway-independent drone
Recovering the XQ-58A Valkyrie

Once the mission is completed, the drone can fly back to a set point where the engines cut off and parachutes are deployed to slowly bring the aircraft back to the ground. Inflatable airbags cushion the drone's touchdown, following which it can be put back on the trailer and moved around again. During an exercise simulating loss of communication, the drone demonstrated the ability to autonomously navigate to this set point and land within the target zone.

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This ability to be launched and recovered from anywhere can come in handy when critical infrastructure such as runways are compromised or damaged or simply not available. The XQ-58A is also capable of flying as a loyal wingman to other fighters such as F-16s. During a combat scenario, the fighters could take off from the airstrip while the Valkyrie makes its runway independent launch to meet its companion in the air.

Given its wide capabilities, the U.S. Navy is also working to incorporate the XQ-58A Valkyrie into its Killer Drone Project, Interesting Engineering reported earlier this year.

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