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USAF invests to design new Tier II unmanned aircraft

The US Air Force plans to invest $18.5 million to develop a new, low-altitude unmanned air system called the Sand Dragon.

The Air Force Research Laboratory intends to award the development contract to AeroMech Engineering, which previously designed the Desert Hawk hand-launched UAS sold under licence by Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works division.

The Sand Dragon is expected to be a Tier II-class UAS dedicated to the route surveillance mission, according to an AFRL notice posted on 8 January.

The aircraft is also described as "runway-independent" and able to carry a 20.4kg (45lb) payload, which could consume up to 500W of power. It also "must be capable of operation on heavy fuel with 24h of endurance", the document says.

In addition to developing the aircraft, the funding plan also includes deploying a full launch and recovery system and a ground control station.

Although the AFRL intends to award the contract to AeroMech without a competition, it is required to notify other potential bidders in case it receives a better offer.

The AFRL is pursuing the new air vehicle despite a plethora of existing candidates already on the market.

The US Navy and Marine Corps are still evaluating four bids submitted to claim their combined small tactical UAS/Tier II contract, which will replace leased Boeing/Insitu ScanEagle systems that are deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The performance specifications for the Sand Dragon compare with the payload and endurance of systems such as the Boeing/Insitu Integrator, the Raytheon/Swift Engineering KillerBee-4 and the UAS Dynamics Storm.

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