The unmanned system that replaces the US Air Force's General Atomics MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper already has a long list of expectations to live up to for a programme that does not yet entirely exist.

The MQ-X, now several years into the requirements definition phase of programme planning, must be survivable, weather tolerant, modular, upgradable with plug-and-play intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) options and have agile communications, says Col James Gear, director of the USAF's remotely piloted aircraft task force.

Speaking at the Association for Unmanned Vechicle Systems International's (AUVSI) 2011 Unmanned Systems Program Review in Washington DC on 2 February, Gear said the new UAV will also have to be capable of both strike and ISR missions, and have commonality with the US Navy's future unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike aircraft.

While it continues to build an acquisition plan for MQ-X, the air force is expanding its existing UAV fleet, adding three MQ-1 and MQ-9 active duty bases this year and taking combat air patrols up to 61 "orbits" by 2012, Gear says.

Meanwhile, the USAF expects to hit one million unmanned flight hours in early March, after 14 years of flying. But taking the current demand into consideration, projections put reaching the 2 million-hour mark as only another two years away.

Source: Flight International