Unmanned news

April 17, 2024  - By
K1000ULE in flight. (Photo: Kraus Hamdani Aerospace)

K1000ULE in flight. (Photo: Kraus Hamdani Aerospace)

There was a lot of press noise in December 2023 about DOD’s Replicator program– which has been interpreted as a project to field thousands of U.S. UAVs to counter a perceived weakness in the face of China’s options for waging UAV war. Then there was a move by the Replicator program office to better explain its approach. It was reported as having at least four concurrent elements:

  1. Encourage U.S. industry to conceive and implement ways to overcome the new aspects of conducting war and possibly use more UAVs more often.
  2. Let China know that the United States is already on the move to not only keep up with but exceed Chinese capabilities.
  3. Overhaul the extremely burdensome and slow existing DOD procurement machine to make large, rapid acquisitions.
  4. Invigorate DOD military services to quickly adapt to find ways to use UAVs in multiple offensive and defensive roles.

Presumably, lessons learned in Ukraine — where both sides have been throwing both improvised and specially designed explosive drones at each other — and U.S. Red Sea encounters with Houthi rebels — have helped to frame some of Replicator’s objectives.

Anyone who has labored through a DOD request for proposal (RFP), RFP response, competitive re-bid and maybe even more competitive re-rebid that potentially led to months of questions and waiting leading to an ultimate reward or disappointment can imagine what hoops the procuring agency had to jump through. They can also imagine the time that elapsed from the definition of a requirement to a written firm procurement specification, and approval of a procurement package.

Never mind the allocation of procurement staff, establishing a budget and then processing of possibly multiple responses – this is a complex, arduous and time-consuming task for both industry and the procurement agencies. With help from the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), it is anticipated that acquiring and fielding thousands of commercially available autonomous drones will now go quicker.

Imagine the inertia needed to change the way that military services use the materiel they’ve acquired and how difficult it might be to change what is bought and how it is used at the very front end of a war effort. When the opposition chucks many, small, inexpensive, airborne bombs at you and you do not have an immediate answer other than a limited number of multi-million-dollar interceptor missiles, it can be very painful. Matching drones with drones is essential.

Replicator was initially envisaged as a $1 billion program over two years to counter this and other problems for the warfighter.

On March 23, Congress finally passed the FY 24 $825 billion defense spending bill — almost six months late — which contained $200 million for Replicator, and DOD began to scramble to find an additional $300 million for the program’s first year. It should work out as there is money currently unspent from the FY23 budget that DOD has already requested Congress to re-allocate, and there is only a little more than six months left for this fiscal year anyway.

It is rumored that AeroVironment, with its Switchblade 600 semi-autonomous, one-way Kamikaze UAV, may benefit from an early Replicator procurement. With an anti-armor charge, Switchblade weighs about 50 lb and can fly for 24 miles and up to 40 minutes before engaging its target, allowing adequate time for manual intervention.

The U.S. Navy has selected a solar-powered UAV from a California start-up because it is the best demonstrated commercially available option for their Marine Corps scouting group.

The K1000ULE from KHAero in Emeryville, California is a long-range reconnaissance UAV.

With 24-hour flight endurance, extremely quiet and virtually radar-undetectable, the UAV provides the Marines with a suitable scouting tool – almost a launch-and-forget facility for day and night, most weather recon activities. It is also a relatively low workload for a team of only three to five personnel to transport and operate.

With vertical take-off and landing capabilities, the K1000ULE is ideal for covert autonomous operations from unprepared areas that a small squad might secure. The mission equipage includes full-motion video with target identification and classification and a secure communications systems.

With anti-jam, anti-spoofing multi-constellation GNSS, the vehicle can operate reliably in most signal-denied areas. It finds and automatically uses thermal columns to soar up to 20,000 ft and loiter undetected. It is capable of beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flight, can carry ADS-B for airborne collision avoidance and can be operated in swarms by a single operator when required – quite some UAV!

The Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie Wingman UAV was developed to work with and on-behalf of high-end airborne assets, such as the F-22 and F-35, and is termed an ‘attributable’ adjunct to these ~$90 million fighter/ground-attack aircraft. Autonomous, driven by AI, and stealthy, the jet-powered UAV carries General Aviation electronics, along with other military communications. It is said to cost in the $5 to 10 million range — which makes it somewhat disposable if it is sent into a “tight or risky” location from which its fighter escort should hold back.

With a 3,000 miles range, 45,000 ft ceiling and carrying capacity of up to 1,800 lb of under-wing armaments, the aircraft can be controlled from an accompanying aircraft as a “Loyal Wingman,” or from the ground and be dispatched to carry out an autonomous, independent mission, requiring approval by a person to release weapons.


The XQ-58A was recently flown with two U.S. Marine Corps F-35 fighter jets at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida to demonstrate the capability for electronic attack and to fly alongside these fifth-generation high-end aircraft. The UAV autonomously detected, classified, and positioned multiple simulated targets during the exercise and provided target-tracking information to the F-35s.

The “Loyal Wingman” concept is still being developed and there are other companies, including Boeing Australia, flying competing prototype UAVs.

So, a more mil-spec tone to this month’s UAV updates, nevertheless a short recap of recent interesting unmanned, autonomous aircraft developments.

This article is tagged with , and posted in Featured Stories, Latest News, Opinions

About the Author: Tony Murfin

Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).