US Air Force Seeking Autonomous Replacement for Reaper Drone

© WikipediaAn MQ-9 Reaper, a hunter-killer surveillance UAV
An MQ-9 Reaper, a hunter-killer surveillance UAV - Sputnik International
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The US Air Force (USAF) is looking for a replacement for its MQ-9 Reaper drone that incorporates artificial intelligence capabilities, according to a solicitation request posted on a government contracting website.

Posted by the US Air Force Life Cycle Management Center on June 3, the information solicitation request seeks submissions for ideas for a "Next Generation UAS [unmanned aerial system] ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance]/Strike Platform” that would replace the Reaper drones built for the USAF by General Atomics.

Submissions for the competition should include technology such as "machine learning, digital engineering, open mission systems (OMS) and attritable technology," the notice says.

In addition, the notice says submissions should consider the “Skyborg” artificial intelligence system being developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory for a “loyal wingman” drone system “as the primary UAS autonomous baseline solution." 

The loyal wingman system hopes to provide companion drones to accompany pilots into combat, flying alongside them to deliver munitions, perform reconnaissance duties or even take a missile for the piloted aircraft if need be.

The Reaper, also called the Predator B, was introduced in 2007 as Washington’s first hunter-killer unmanned aerial vehicle, replacing the MQ-1 Predator drone, which primarily performed intelligence and reconnaissance roles and carried minimal weaponry.

By contrast, the Reaper is larger, faster and can lift substantially more weaponry, as well as stay in the air for much longer than the Predator.

Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, told a House Armed Services subcommittee in March that “the Reaper has been a great platform for us” but noted that the Air Force sees “a lot of opportunity to bring in commercial technology, push the price point down, have systems that ... we can take more loss with."

MQ-9 Reaper drones cost roughly $16 million each, according to 2019 Pentagon budget estimates.
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