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5GAT Drone Ready for First Flight

Gerald Scroop

October 14, 2020

The Fifth Generation Aerial Target will take its first flight later this month at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, following nearly flawless completion of ground-based testing in September. 

An aircraft takes flight.

After a multi-month delay due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, 5GAT finished a battery of ground test events at Michael Army Airfield on September 18. Executed by an integrated team of Defense Department personnel and contractors, the testing verified complete aircraft control, safety procedures and key performance milestones for takeoff and landing. The single prototype executed 24 taxi test events (15 low-speed and nine high-speed) in just six days, with no interruptions or major problems. 

The office of the director, operational test and evaluation sponsors the 5GAT, which is a full-scale, low-observable air vehicle that represents, more accurately than anything else available, the fifth-generation fighter aircraft threats U.S. forces could face. The low-cost drone is designed to enable air-to-air and surface-to-air platform and weapons test and evaluation, pilot and ground-force training, and the development of tactics, techniques and procedures against a fifth-generation threat.  

An aircraft sits on a flightline.

"To determine whether a system really is combat-credible, we must test it under realistic conditions. That includes putting it up against a realistic threat," Robert Behler, the director, operational test and evaluation said. "Right now, we lack a test platform that truly represents fifth-generation air capabilities. Filling that gap as soon as possible is absolutely essential to both testing and training." 

Sierra Technical Services, the prime contractor, has taken an innovative approach to building 5GAT, constructing the airframe from composites using soft tooling to reduce cost. The subcontractor, Fast Optimal Engineering, designed major subsystem solutions, including flight control actuation, electrical power, hydraulics, landing gear and steering. The subcontractor, 5D Systems, was responsible for developing the unmanned 5GAT's complex suite of software. 5GAT utilizes engines and other elements harvested from decommissioned DOD military aircraft, as well as an existing U.S. Army ground-based aircraft control system.  

"With 5GAT, we've reinvented the typical acquisition process, and have aggressively used innovative program management and contracting processes to accelerate new capability development and ensure cost savings," Michael Crisp, a retired naval aviator and DOT&E's deputy director for air warfare said. "We pulled in expertise from ‘greybeards,' both industry and military, and the vision of our next generation of pilots, U.S. Air Force Academy cadets. We gave STS the freedom to explore cutting-edge design and manufacturing techniques, and got an even bigger bang for the taxpayer buck by recycling government-owned assets."

An aircraft sits on a flightline.

Flight testing will begin in late October. Initial flight test objectives include demonstrating 5GAT flight characteristics, various subsystems' performance and the aircraft's auto-takeoff and auto-landing functionality. Subsequent flight tests will progressively expand the aircraft's flight envelope in altitude, speed and greater G-force loading.

"When this unique prototype takes to the air in a few days, we will have gone from a basic concept to first flight in less than three-and-a-half years. That includes periods when the program slowed dramatically due to funding issues and the recent COVID-related delays," Crisp said. "I think 5GAT shows the power, creativity and flexibility that a small but diverse team with few constraints can produce — all to the benefit of the warfighter." 

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