Poway, California-based General Atomics is currently testing the prototype of a drone with firepower that is unmatched by any drone currently in use by the U.S. military, a report from Breaking Defense claims. Officially, the company has declined to comment on the report.
Drones have rapidly moved further from their roles in reconnaissance to actually engaging with adversarial forces. The U.S. military has been using a large number as well as a variety of drones in its operations over the past decade and has worked with its industrial partners to develop its vision of drones and their capabilities.
Developing a drone with no clear sight of adoption by the military is probably a high-risk strategy but General Atomics seems to have a simple plan. Deliver more firepower than any drone has delivered before and there is demand in the market.
The report claims that the new drone can carry up to 16 Hellfire missiles on a single flight. Most drones currently in use employ air to surface Hellfire missiles. However, the number 16 is four times as much firepower that the MQ-9 Reaper can carry. The MQ-9 Reaper, also made by General Atomics, of which close to 200 have been built, has a range of over 1000 miles (1,850 km) and is also used by Homeland Security and other nations across the world.
The design for the new drone, however, comes from the MQ-1C Gray Eagle that sacrifices the altitude capability to deliver long endurance. The Gray Eagle can carry up to eight air-to-air Stinger missiles and with the U.S. Air Force looking at replacing some drones for want of air combat capacities, General Atomics' new drone might fit just right in.
Packing more fire-power has its disadvantages too. With each Hellfire weighing 100 pounds (45 kg), carrying 16 of them is carrying almost half of its own weight for any adaptation of the Gray Eagle. The current Gray Eagle has a carrying capacity of only 800 pounds (360 kg), so the doubling of its payload capacity is likely to have an effect on its endurance while also reducing its capacities of carrying payloads for other missions or cooling systems for its sensors.
Although the report does not provide any details on the engine of this drone, it claims that the drone has larger wings. This could signal that the engine is unlikely to see a major upgrade. The automated landing and take-off feature mentioned in the report is likely an attempt to reduce the burden of decisions on the UAV pilot.
The drone allegedly requires less than 800-feet (244 m) to take off and land which means it could also be adapted for use by the Navy or even the Army in rough terrain. With the ability to launch the drone from a site closer to combat, General Atomics is probably not very worried about the lowered endurance due to the increased payload.
Correction: An earlier version of this article's title stated the defense drone "caught" 16 Hellfire missiles. This is incorrect, and has been updated to reflect the drone's real capacity to carry Hellfire missiles.