The US Air Force Research Laboratory has launched a market survey process to support exploration of technology options for a new-generation multi-role UAV system that would combine hunter-killer roles with increased intelligence gathering capability.
The new-generation system is expected to incorporate advanced networking capabilities, but be cheaper than existing medium- and high-altitude endurance UAVs. If progressed, it would eventually replace the USAF’s existing General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1 UAV fleets.
According to request for information documents issued by the AFRL, the “past decade has seen a growth of unmanned air systems from basic platforms with simple video links to systems integrated into many facets of warfare to include ISR and engagement functions.
“While much progress has been made, there are more opportunities available for unmanned air systems.  The next-generation joint hunter-killer unmanned air system is not just an air vehicle platform but also a true system that can further integrate multi-role capability (for example, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and engagement) for the combatant commander’s needs while remaining relatively affordable.  It is believed that new and emerging technologies are the key enablers to achieve this end.”

Predator B

The USAF's MQ-9 Reaper is now entering service, but planning is underway for what comes next

The proposed UAV is anticipated to be in the 9,100kg (20,000lb) class and operate at altitudes of above 3,500ft (1,600m). It would be capable of operating in low to moderate threat level environments at considerable range: “A future unmanned air system can operate at extended distances over extended periods of time, and it can also self-deploy from CONUS.”
The RFI flags multi air vehicle operations with functionality distributed between them on the basis that the future system “may encompass more than one vehicle”.
It says that the new UAV system is expected to support flexibility on multiple levels, including “ability to operate and co-operate in a net-centric environment; operate autonomously in a degraded net; flexibility to accommodate a variety of payloads and equipment to include a variety of weapons, modular payloads, or addition fuel, and growth potential – ie, other capability can be spiralled in once fielded.
“Therefore, it is desirable to investigate how much growth capability is achievable through the use of an open architecture approach.  An understanding is sought as to how far spiral deployment of new technologies can be pushed without having to redesign the system.”
RFI documents also emphasise technology options rather than actual platform proposals: “Specific system solutions are not of interest at this time, but rather technologies and synergistic technology interactions that can achieve capabilities greater than current low-cost unmanned air system systems yet remain relatively affordable. It is anticipated at a future date full systems concepts will be requested.
“Specific areas of interest include proven technologies and developmental technologies with an anticipated technology readiness level [TRL] of six by 2012.  Information is also requested on additional technologies that can achieve a TRL of six by 2015.”
Component technologies to be explored include “sensors to enable a robust intelligence gathering platform, offensive and defensive weapons, net-centric elements, ground control stations, and air vehicle platform technologies to include but not limited to structures, propulsion, aerodynamics, manufacturing, and controls to include both positive and/or autonomous command and control and operating in national airspace”.
The RFI also seeks data on the impact of life-cycle costs for each of the technologies proposed.
Participation in the RFI process is restricted to US firms, with responses due by 5 June.