The US Air Force (USAF) recently conducted an automatic takeoff and landing of an MQ-9 Reaper drone, the service has revealed.
The USAF has been using the technology during tests for a while now. However, this is the first time the service has demonstrated the capability on the General Atomics aircraft.
During the test, the satellite-connected aircraft took off from Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, while a backup line-of-site radio connection was on standby.
“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.”
The new capability will reduce the staffing required to conduct drone operations, including during test flights. Operators will be able to land the aircraft even at bases without air crew, making drone deployment more agile during combat.
Action group director of the 49th Operations Group, Maj. Dustin Barbour, said the capacity will also reduce aircraft accident rates, which he underlined are already the lowest in the world.
“There will certainly be more automated takeoffs and landings at Holloman AFB,” he said.
“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.”