Wednesday, October 20, 2021

U.S. Air Force demonstrates automatic takeoff and landing capability of its combat drones

The U.S. Air Force has successfully performed the first fully automatic takeoff and landing of MQ-9 Reaper unmanned combat aircraft at the Holloman Air Force Base.

According to a recent service news release, an MQ-9 Reaper from Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, landed and took off from Holloman Air Force Base for the first time using a new automated landing and takeoff system without an aircrew present, July 8.

Also added is that the 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron, from Creech AFB, launched the aircraft via satellite connection. Meanwhile, the 49th Operations Group, here, established a backup line-of-site radio connection to the aircraft in the event of an emergency.

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“A crew flying beyond line of sight in Nevada, were piloting the aircraft, and were able to land without any help from aircrews at Holloman,” said Lt. Col. Nathaniel Totten, 49th OG deputy commander. “Previously, MQ-9s could only land and take off if there was a local crew to ‘line-of-sight’ link with the aircraft. With this new capability, an MQ-9 can theoretically land anywhere there is a runway large enough.”

Prior to this successful demonstration of a new capability, unmanned aircraft owned by the Air Force had to utilize two means of control: line-of-sight controls for launch and recovery operations at an airfield, and a satellite connection used to conduct missions at any distance.

“This event was significant as it is the start of a large change in the way we train MQ-9 pilots, and how many people we have to deploy” said Maj. Dustin Barbour, 49th Wing commander’s action group director. “It will likely decrease aircraft accident rates, which is already the lowest in the combat air forces, and potentially make the aircraft more agile for fights against near-peer competitors.”

The MQ-9 from Creech was the first aircraft to land at Holloman without the immediate line-of-sight control of a pilot. It landed on its own – fully automated – with a crew only monitoring its progress.

Photo by Airman 1st Class Jessica Sanchez

This capability is not necessarily new, but is new to Air Education and Training Command and Air Combat Command. This capability has been in operational testing until very recently, and is now being pushed out to operational MQ-9 Attack and special operations squadrons around the Air Force.

“There will certainly be more automated takeoff and landings at Holloman AFB,” said Barbour. “It is uncertain how soon it will become the dominant form of takeoff and landing, but that is more consistent and potentially more reliable than a pilot. There will always be a need for a pilot, but more and more, the aircraft will be landing on its own with only the command to land coming from the pilot.”

As this capability matures and becomes more readily available, the aircrafts will be able to take off and land at any base or location with a runway big enough, just like most manned aircraft. We will no longer need the launch and recovery crews, further reducing deployed footprint requirements, as well as adding the flexibility to land at any base within range of the aircraft, not just where there is a cockpit and pilot waiting. This capability increases the effective areas of the world that MQ-9s can have an operational or strategic impact, to almost everywhere.

“Over the last decade the MQ-9 has been very effective flying, fighting and winning from fixed bases in the U.S. Central Command area of operations,” said Totten. “Now, with greater reach and flexibility possible with automated takeoff and landing, the MQ-9 truly matched the mission of the Air Force. Our adversaries have to contend with a very capable and elusive platform operating wherever the president calls on us to be.”

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Executive Editor

About this Author

Dylan Malyasov
U.S. defense journalist and commentator. Aviation photographer. Dylan leads Defence Blog's coverage of global military news, focusing on engineering and technology across the U.S. defense industry.

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