As the military grapples with connecting more things over longer distances, recent flight reveals a way forward.
A new type of electric, fixed-wing drone last week achieved a world record for time in the air using thrust.
The flight shows what combat support by electric drones could look like, as the Defense Department works to connect more hardware under increasingly difficult conditions.
The 16-foot-wingspan drone, dubbed the K1000 ULE Rev-P, from Kraus Hamdani Aerospace, or KHA, completed a non-stop 26-hour flight under continuous thrust last week. It’s a world record for an electric drone in its size and weight category. The claim was independently verified by Mari Kooi of the tech advisory Gothams, which has no financial stake in KHA.
The company plans to take part in the U.S. Army’s next Project Convergence exercise set for later this summer, according to Fatema Hamdani, one of the founders of KHA.
Comparable drones flying up to 20,000 feet above sea level boast a much lower endurance time under thrust, about 5 to 8 hours or so. But the K1000 ULE is designed to remain aloft much longer, Hamdani said. Larger drones flying at much higher altitudes—where there is less gravity and air resistance—can stay up longer. But for smaller drones—which are harder for radars to pick up—staying aloft for long at 20,000 feet is very energy-intensive, hence the lower endurance.
The aircraft also can fly using the rising hot air called thermals, just as birds do. The drone’s avionics constantly measure the change in the environment and energy levels and decides which source of power is best given those conditions. Under the right environmental circumstances the drone can stay airborne for around 340 hours, fully autonomously, Hamdani said. She estimates that in regular flight, thrust is only needed about 20 percent of the time.
They didn't need the soaring technology during the 26-hour flight and completed it using full thrust.
The company has no plans to try and arm the drone, but an all-electric drone with that endurance could still have big effects on the battlefield, not only collecting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data, but also potentially serving as a communication link between objects on the battlefield. It could serve as a sort of cell tower in the sky, as a link between Low Earth Orbit satellites and ground forces, or as an electronic warfare asset to block or disrupt adversary communications.
The breakthrough comes as the U.S. military and the Army in particular struggles with connecting an ever-wider array of weapons, vehicles, and objects on the battlefield, part of an overall vision for transforming and accelerating operations called Joint All-Domain Command and Control, or JADC2.
The military is also grappling with how to extend its range over the vast distances of the Pacific Ocean, and do so with limited runway space as it prepares to counter China.