Semi-secret US Air Force long-endurance spy drone breaks cover

  • elocal magazine By elocal magazine
  • Jul 10, 2024

An open-secret American spy plane has broken cover after the US Air Force released photos of its Unmanned Long-endurance Tactical Reconnaissance Aircraft (ULTRA). Built by DZYNE, the semi-classified drone is now confirmed as deployed and active.

The recent unrest in the Middle East, and especially in the Red Sea have been a proving ground for Western military technology, tactics, and policy. The MQ-9 Reapers used for long-range reconnaissance to guard against terrorist attacks on shipping, as well as other on other missions, have been invaluable. Unfortunately, one hard lesson is that the Reaper is vulnerable and at a cost of US$30 million each, there have been a string of very expensive losses to enemy fire.

The reason for this price tag is that the Reaper began life as a ground strike aircraft that was later modified for reconnaissance missions. That's all well and good, but it later turned out that only about one in a hundred missions involved making attacks. Since a one-percent combat rate was a very large redundancy while putting a very expensive air frame at risk, the Air Force needed an alternative. And fast.

This is where DZYNE Technologies Incorporated came in. In an interview with Defense One, Matt McCue, CEO of DZYNE, said that, in conjunction with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Center for Rapid Innovation (CRI), the company had to come up with a new drone that was inexpensive, less vulnerable, and could be put in the air quickly.

The result was ULTRA, which was derived from an existing sports model aircraft. This was converted into a military hardened unmanned air vehicle using commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) UAS technology. It may not be as advanced as the Reaper, but it's much cheaper, and boasts an endurance of 80 hours with a payload of over 400 lb (180 kg).

In addition, ULTRA has hardened GPS and can carry a reconfigurable variety of electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR), radio frequency (RF), and other low-cost intelligence collection payloads. These are cheaper than those on the Reaper because ULTRA operates at a lower altitude, so COTS sensors are acceptable.

According to the Air Force, this cost cutting drone means that they can deploy more of them to cover larger remote areas and ULTRA can conduct missions far from available airfields using "point and click" satellite command systems.

The released images show ULTRA on deployment, though exactly where hasn't been revealed.

The Pentagon has to keep some secrets, I suppose.

Source: US Air Force