The US Air Force says the Valkyrie drone launched another drone in a first for the aircraft

The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrates the separation of the ALTIUS-600 small UAS in a test at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground test range, Arizona on March 26, 2021
The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrates separation of the ALTIUS-600 small UAS in a test at the US Army Yuma Proving Ground test range in Arizona, March 26, 2021

  • The Air Force Research Laboratory conducted its sixth test of the Valkyrie drone in late March.
  • During the test, the drone launched a smaller drone from its internal weapons bay.
  • The Air Force is looking at Valkyrie as an autonomous UAV that could support manned aircraft.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A Valkyrie drone launched another drone during a recent flight test, the Air Force Research Laboratory announced Monday.

The XQ-58A Valkyrie is a long-range unmanned aerial vehicle capable of high subsonic speeds. It was built by Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems for the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) program and first flew on March 5, 2019.

The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator, a long-range, high subsonic unmanned air vehicle completed its inaugural flight March 5, 2019 at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona
The XQ-58A demonstrator completed its inaugural flight at Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona on March 5, 2019.

During its sixth flight test on March 26, 2021, the aircraft conducted its first payload release from its internal weapons bay, launching an Area-I ALTIUS-600 small unmanned aircraft system.

The Air Force is looking at relatively inexpensive, expendable drones like the Valkyrie as potential artificial-intelligence-driven autonomous platforms that could fly alongside and support manned fighter aircraft. This is the major focus of the Skyborg program.

The Air Force’s Skyborg project, for which Kratos, Boeing, and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems are developing prototypes, is about fielding autonomous unmanned systems that will “enable the Air Force to operate and sustain low-cost, teamed aircraft that can thwart adversaries with quick, decisive actions in contested environments,” the service says.

The smaller, tube-launched autonomous ALTIUS-600 drones provide additional support in the form of intelligence gathering and reconnaissance, counter-drone, electronic-warfare, and strike capabilities.

An XQ-58A Valkyrie low-cost unmanned aerial vehicle launches at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., Dec. 9, 2020
An XQ-58A launches at the US Army Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, December 9, 2020.

The recent Valkyrie test was not only the first time the payload doors have been opened in flight, Alyson Turri, the demonstration program manager, said in a statement, but this time the XQ-58A drone also flew higher and faster than it has in previous tests.

The recent test followed the Valkyrie drone’s fifth flight test in December, which involved the aircraft flying alongside Air Force F-22 and F-35A fighters and a Marine Corps F-35B.

A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor and F-35A Lightning II fly in formation with the XQ-58A Valkyrie low-cost unmanned aerial vehicle over the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground testing range, Ariz., during a series of tests Dec. 9, 2020
An F-22 and F-35A with an XQ-58A over the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona during tests, December 9, 2020.

The rocket-launched Valkyrie drone conducted a semi-autonomous flight while carrying a gatewayONE payload built to allow the different fifth-generation aircraft to communicate, though the communication tool lost connectivity shortly after the aircraft took off.

Despite the connectivity problem during the testing in December, the Air Force was able to overcome the digital security barriers to allow the F-22’s Intra-Flight Data Link and F-35’s Multifunctional Advanced Data Link to communicate and transmit data, demonstrating some of the possibilities for this technology.

The Air Force Research Laboratory said that the most recent Valkyrie drone test, which like past tests was conducted at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona and supported by Kratos and Area-I, “further demonstrates the utility of affordable, high performance unmanned air vehicles.”

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Ghana is using drones to deliver coronavirus vaccines to rural communities

Zipline Novant Health ppe
One of Zipline’s drones.

  • Zipline has started delivering coronavirus vaccines with drone in Ghana.
  • This tackles one of the biggest problems with the rollout – distributing doses in poorer countries.
  • Zipline has delivered medical supplies by drone since 2016, and works with Walmart and Novant Health.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Ghana has become the first country to launch a nationwide program to deliver coronavirus vaccines with drones.

Zipline started delivering the shots on Tuesday as part of the WHO’s first shipment of vaccines through COVAX, its program that aims to provide poorer countries with enough doses to cover 20% of their population.

Zipline, a San Francisco startup, has been delivering medical supplies including blood, personal protective equipment, and vaccines since 2016 using patented, autonomous drones.

Doctors can use Zipline’s app to place orders and track shipments.

As well as national operations in Rwanda and Ghana, Zipline also has partnerships with Walmart and Novant Health in the US, and its PPE deliveries become the first long-range drone logistics flights to be approved by the FAA.

 Zipline started the drone deliveries in Ghana on Tuesday when it distributed 4,500 doses across the Ashanti Region in the country’s south in 36 separate journeys in a partnership with the Ghanaian government and UPS.

Around 2.5 million doses will be delivered in Ghana using the drones, GAVI said.

“Not only does this make Ghana the world’s first country to deploy drones on a national scale for the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, but is also a giant effort in ensuring equitable access and enabling Ghana to fully utilize its healthcare infrastructure to deliver vaccines,” Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo said in a statement.

COVAX shipped 600,000 doses of the vaccine created by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca to the capital, Accra, in late February.

But distributing vaccine doses globally is proving to be a mammoth task.

Even when vaccines do make it to developing countries, they might lack the transport links and road networks to distribute the doses to everyone in need.

This is complicated further by storage requirements. Pfizer’s vaccine has to be transported at -94 degrees Fahrenheit through a system of deep-freeze airport warehouses and then refrigerated in vehicles using dry ice and GPS temperature-monitoring devices, while AstraZeneca’s and Moderna‘s can be transported at fridge temperatures.

Zipline told Bloomberg it has developed drones that can deliver “all leading COVID-19 vaccines.”

Zipline’s drones look like six-foot long airplanes

Insider’s Noah Lewis spoke to CEO Rinaudo back in May, when the company started delivering coronavirus tests in Ghana and Rwanda.

Each drone’s flight is fully automated and monitored from its distribution center. They can fly close to 100 miles round-trip on a single battery charge, travel up to 80 mph, and carry four pounds of cargo.

Orders can be scheduled in advance or placed on demand for just-in-time delivery, and drones can be launched within seven minutes of the company receiving the order.

Unlike conventional drones, Zipline’s drones resemble small planes. They are six feet long with an 11-foot wingspan, and, rather than landing themselves, drop boxes of supplies with a parachute attached to cushion their fall.

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Biden administration curtails drone strikes amid major policy review

GettyImages 503831464
A US Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), carrying a Hellfire missile lands at a secret air base after flying a mission in the Persian Gulf region on January 7, 2016.

There has been a steep drop in reported drone strikes since President Joe Biden took office, as Insider reported last month. Now The New York Times is reporting why: the new administration is conducting a major policy review that began the day it came into power.

The last administration unleashed the CIA and Pentagon, scrapping rules meant to protect innocent men, women, and children from being killed by unmanned aerial vehicles. It also spent its last few weeks in office escalating in Somalia, conducting a half-dozen attacks in the first half of January alone.

There have been no strikes there since January 20, however.

The Times reported that Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan imposed strict new controls on the use of drones outside of active war zones, requiring the White House to sign off on any such attack.

The new administration is using the pause to review how the military and its intelligence agencies conduct extrajudicial killings. Among considerations: whether or not restore Obama-era rules that limited drone strikes to targets considered an active threat – not just members of a designated terrorist organization – and only when there is “near certainty” that no women or children will be killed.

That is just the sort of review that critics of US foreign policy hoped for when Insider first reported on the apparent lull in drone strikes.

“If there is a pause in air strikes overall, we hope it’s due to a reassessment of the United States’ strategy and a recognition that past strikes have not succeeded in ending attacks by armed groups, but have instead killed and injured thousands of civilians,” Daphne Eviatar, director of the Security With Human Rights program at Amnesty International, said at the time.

It is extremely unlikely, however, that the Biden administration will stop using drones altogether. It is not even certain that it will return to limits on their use that former President Barack Obama imposed in his second term amid an outcry over civilian deaths in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.

As The Times reported, the chief concern is rolling back the Trump-era expansion of the rules of engagement, with Biden officials discovering that ostensible safeguards for civilians “were sometimes stronger on paper than in reality.”

That resulted in a record-breaking pace of US airstrikes. For example, according to monitoring groups, the US may have bombed Yemen more often during Donald Trump’s four years in office than under all previous US presidents combined.

“I totally changed the rules of engagement,” the last president boasted.

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

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There have been zero reported US drone strikes since Joe Biden took office

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A Yemeni boy walks past a mural depicting a US drone on December 13, 2013 in the capital Sanaa.

  • Since Joe Biden took office, there have no reports of US drone strikes or civilian casualties.
  • This comes after Trump carried out more strikes in Somalia and Yemen than all other presidents combined.
  • “If there is a pause in airstrikes overall, we hope it’s due to a reassessment of the United States’ strategy,” said Amnesty International’s Daphne Eviator.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

It’s a dark trend for new, post-9/11 US heads of state: Usually, within the first weekend, the new president, having inherited a global war on terror, orders the military or an intelligence agency to end someone’s life with an airstrike. To adversaries, it demonstrates resolve; to allies as well as critics, it demonstrates that there will be continuity, no matter which party controls the White House.

President Joe Biden, it appears, has been different. Under his watch, there has been just one declared US airstrike: a February 9 attack in Iraq that, the military claims, “resulted in the deaths of two Daesh terrorists.”

And in stark contrast to his immediate predecessors, there have been no immediate reports of civilian casualties – this, following months of escalated US attacks, from Central Asia to Africa, during his predecessor’s last couple months in office.

Clandestine operations, by their nature, cannot be ruled out. What we know for sure, though, is that “there have been zero local or official reports of US drone or other strikes in Somalia, Libya, Yemen, or Pakistan so far under Biden,” Chris Woods, director of the monitoring group Airwars.org, told Insider.

Biden’s forerunners, Republican and Democrat alike, both carried out US military operations that were both well-publicized and fraught, the demonstration of American power resulting in the death of innocents.

Former President Barack Obama ordered his first drone strike within 72 hours of taking office; that attack, aimed at the Taliban and carried out by the CIA, missed its mark, killing three Pakistani civilians and gravely wounding a child. The tactic would come to define Obama’s legacy, boots on the ground replaced by unmanned aerial vehicles, American lives protected at a cost borne by others.

Former President Donald Trump oversaw his first drone strike on January 20, 2017, the day he was inaugurated. A spree of attacks took place in Yemen, culminating a week later in a botched raid that killed an 8-year-old girl and other civilians. Over the next four years, Trump would go on to bomb the country more often than any of his predecessors combined – not counting ramped up US support, just rescinded, for the Saudi-led war against the nation’s Houthi militants.

Biden is no peacenik. In the US Senate, he backed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And there is no reason to believe a lull amid a pandemic and other domestic crises will evolve into a policy of unilateral disarmament.

Nicholas Grossman, a professor of international relations at the University of Illinois and author of a book on drone warfare, wonders if the apparent pause in most US military operations is the aftermath of his predecessor’s outgoing escalations.

“Under Trump, the US ramped up drone strikes in Somalia, though that escalation was already happening in Obama’s final year,” Grossman told Insider. According to data from the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, there were 43 airstrikes in Somalia targeting the extremist group al-Shabaab, during Obama’s two terms in his office, including 16 in his last year. During Trump’s single four-year term, where a focus on rhetoric led many falsely to label him a principled isolationist, there were 208 such airstrikes, including 14 in his final six months.

There have been previous gaps in US strikes, Grossman noted; a lot or a little can happen in three weeks. It’s also possible, he said, that this is something more: “the Biden administration is pausing while reviewing the strategy.” Relatedly, “it’s possible the US military and intelligence agencies launched a few strikes at the end of Trump’s term in anticipation of that pause.”

Alternatively, “it’s also possible that those January strikes did real damage to al-Shabaab as intended, and for that reason there either isn’t a need or a good opportunity at the moment,” Grossman said.

Critics of the US-led war on terror hope the apparent moratorium signals something greater.

“If there is a pause in airstrikes overall, we hope it’s due to a reassessment of the United States’ strategy,” Daphne Eviatar, director of the Security With Human Rights program at Amnesty International, told Insider, “and a recognition that past strikes have not succeeded in ending attacks by armed groups, but have instead killed and injured thousands of civilians.”

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

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