Silicon Valley’s Reliable Robotics said on Apr. 25 that it has received a small business innovation research Phase II contract from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to design, develop and test autonomous aircraft features for Air Force platforms.

“Reliable Robotics will demonstrate how its aircraft agnostic design can be quickly adapted for new airframes through simulated and real-world flight tests,” the company said. “The autonomy upgrade will be capable of installation on a wide variety of aircraft.”

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. David O’Brien, the senior vice president of government solutions at Reliable Robotics, said in a statement that the company’s remotely piloted aircraft system “unlocks opportunities for all defense agencies and drives mission success in cargo delivery, logistics, surveillance, and other applications where higher tempos and lower costs are vital.”

Reliable Robotics, founded in 2017, said that it has significant experience in the drone arena, including remotely piloting a Cessna 172 Skyhawk in 2019 over a populated area without onboard crew, and last year remotely operating a Cessna 208 Caravan, a cargo plane, from a control center more than 50 miles away

Last month, Air Force Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, the commander of Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), suggested that the Air Force will need many more attritable drones and that the service’s drone numbers may surpass the number of manned aircraft (Defense Daily, March 14).

Last year, U.S. Navy officials suggested that the Navy will move to a 40-60 unmanned/manned carrier air wing and that such a percentage of unmanned/manned could reach 60-40 (Defense Daily, March 30, 2021). At the time, Rear Adm. Gregory Harris,  the Navy’s director of air warfare, said that the future unmanned/manned mix depended upon the success of the Boeing [BA] MQ-25A Stingray unmanned carrier-based tanker aircraft “and our ability to truly learn to operate around an aircraft carrier and safely execute that both on the flight deck and then airborne.”

Department of the Air Force officials have yet to establish unmanned/manned requirements percentages for the Air Force’s future fleet, but the service is likely to undertake such a study.

Given the expense of manned aircraft programs, including the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter, the Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 Raider, the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35, and the Boeing F-15EX, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has said that drones will be a much larger part of the service’s force mix (Defense Daily, Feb. 7).

The service is undertaking a classified program to field combat drones by 2030, if not earlier. NGAD, or another manned fighter, such as the F-35 or the Lockheed Martin F-22, would serve as the “play caller” for such drones.