General Atomics' Rough Field-Capable Mojave Drone Breaks Cover

The new Mojave drone is like an intriguing mix of OV-10 Bronco and MQ-9 Reaper.

The General Atomics Mojave unmanned aircraft.
GA-ASI

General Atomics has offered the first official details about a new unmanned aircraft it has been developing internally called the Mojave. Derived from the MQ-1C Gray Eagle that the company developed for the U.S. Army, it is optimized for short takeoffs and landings from semi-improved surfaces with an emphasis on supporting various kinds of expeditionary and distributed operations. Its new wing gives it a look that is reminiscent in some ways of the OV-10 Bronco. The company says that its improved short-field performance would also make it suitable for carrier-based operations without any need for a catapult to launch it or arresting gear during recovery.

David Alexander, President of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI), together with C. Mark Brinkley, GA-ASI's Senior Director of Marketing & Strategic Communications, provided details about Mojave to The War Zone during a call with reporters yesterday. The Mojave, only one of which currently exists, took its first flight this past Summer and has conducted a number of flight tests since then. 

Alexander said that the company first began laying the groundwork for this drone around two and half years ago and that active work on it has been going on over the past two years. "This idea started back when we were thinking about how to be runway independent," he explained. The decision to go with a short takeoff and landing (STOL) design came after the company determined it would be too difficult to meet its performance targets using a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) configuration.

“It’s just fighting the physics all the time," Alexander said, something that has certainly been noted over the years in the development of advanced VTOL aircraft. “We think this is a very efficient way to get you persistence and get it somewhat runway independent.”

Mojave's fuselage shares a similar mold line with the Gray Eagle, which was itself derived in part from the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. However, it ditches the MQ-1C's tail in favor of one that is more like that of the MQ-9. There are other significant differences toward the rear of the fuselage to accommodate a Rolls-Royce M250 turboshaft engine. The M250, a popular design that is already used to power various manned fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, is rated at 450 horsepower. This gives Mojave significantly increased power over the MQ-1C and its 165-horsepower Thielert Centurion 1.7 diesel engine. Compared to the Gray Eagle, the drone's entire tricycle landing gear has been redesigned for rough field performance, including the addition of wider flotation tires designed to help it traverse sandy and otherwise loose terrain. 

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A good look at Mojave's beefy landing gear.

The design of the Mojave's wing is new, being optimized for maximum lift with the help of leading-edge slats and double-slotted flaps. It has a wider chord and generally broader dimensions, which Alexander likened to that of a crop duster, compared to the wings on the Gray Eagle or the improved Gray Eagle Extended Range (GE-ER). The new drone's wingspan is 52 feet, compared to the 56-foot span on the standard MQ-1C and the 58-foot one on the GE-ER. 

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A view of the Mojave showing off its wing design.

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A Gray Eagle Extended Range (GE-ER) drone.

During testing so far, Mojave has demonstrated the ability to take off and land in less than 500 feet. The goal is that the drone, in its lightest configuration, would be able to get airborne and touch down in as little as 300 to 400 feet, a capability that would be enabled, in part, by an extremely low stall speed. Flight testing so far has shown that this unmanned aircraft can safely land at speeds as low as 45 knots. It “doesn’t even look like it should be flying, it’s going so slow," GA-ASI's President Alexander said.

Of course, things like the total distance necessary to take off and land, as well as the drone's range and endurance, would vary depending on its configuration. To get the total takeoff and landing roll down to 300 to 400 feet would likely require a more limited payload package focused on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions and with a fuel load offering less than five hours of endurance. Mojave could be capable of staying airborne for up to 25 hours or more, but this would require more fuel, and therefore a greater takeoff weight, resulting in at least the need for a longer stretch of runway to get airborne. GA-ASI provided the chart seen below, which shows the projected relationship between the length of the takeoff ground roll and total endurance. With all this in mind, Alexander highlighted the internal modularity of the design and the flexibility this offers.

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In addition to the sensor turret under its nose, Mojave can accommodate various sensors, such as radars with synthetic aperture imaging functionality and signals intelligence suites, and as other payloads, such as communications packages, internally. It is designed to carry a significant array of weapons and other stores externally.

“You can shorten the endurance down and carry a big load when you need to and then when you don’t, you can offload it and have much longer persistence," Alexander said.

The Gray Eagle and GE-ER designs can currently be fitted with four underwing pylons and one the centerline. Mojave has six underwing hardpoints, which are also rated to carry heavier loads, and a centerline one. The company has put particular emphasis on the new drone's ability to carry up to 16 Hellfire missiles under its wings, but has stressed that it could carry various other weapons and stores depending on a customer's requirements.

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An artist's conception of a Mojave drone armed with 16 Hellfire missiles.

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General Atomics has already developed a number of different podded systems for use on MQ-1C, as well as the company's larger MQ-9 Reaper, that could potentially make their way onto Mojave. This includes a self-protection pod with radar warning receivers, missile approach warning sensors, and the ability to release decoy flares or chaff in response to threats that are detected. That particular pod is part of an overall push on the part of GA-ASI to ensure that its entire product line will continue to be relevant, even in higher-end conflicts, as you can read more about here.

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An older General Atomics infographic showing various podded payloads developed for the MQ-9 and its derivatives. The self-protection pod, among others, could be compatible with the Mojave.

Beyond the basic performance benefits that Mojave offers when compared to Gray Eagle or other similarly-sized unmanned aircraft, its design makes it eminently deployable, even to remote and austere locations with limited existing infrastructure. "A dirt road" is all you might need to serve as a runway, according to GA-ASI President Alexander. The drone's very name is a reference to "one of the harshest and most austere areas the world, where deadly rattlesnakes and horned lizards adapt to survive the extreme forces of nature," according to a company press release. This all seems even more fitting since General Atomics' two flight test facilities, El Mirage and Grey Butte, are situated along dirt roads in the Mojave.

"Ground Support Equipment can be self-ferried or transported by single UH-60 helicopter," according to a fact sheet that GA-ASI, which says the drone can fly up to 2,500 nautical miles in a ferry configuration. The unmanned aircraft is transportable via C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft, needing only "1.5 hours from rollout-to-takeoff with a four-person team."

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The full Mojave product card.

Takeoff and landing, and just moving Mojave around on the ground, are all highly automated processes. “What we call auto-taxi is really the operator taxiing the aircraft," Alexander explained. "So, we have a closed-loop control, so he can’t over-speed, he can’t over-turn."

"It allows the flexibility of the operator to taxi to get to the launch and recovery bucket and once you’re in the bucket, you just push a button for launch, and off you go," he continued. “We don’t believe fully automating the taxi piece is prudent because usually taxi conditions are really dynamic and can change. So we think it's better to have the operator in the loop.”

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Landing is as simple as pressing a button, too. "We’ve got algorithms now that use the EO/IR payload [the electro-optical/infrared sensor suite] and they target each end of the points where you want to run and that loads into the autopilot and you swing around and come down and do an auto-land," Alexander said. This is a capability the U.S. Air Force demonstrated earlier this year on the MQ-9.

“Without a doubt, all this has to be automated," Alexander added, underlining the importance of those capabilities for operations from remote and austere locations. "The autonomy piece is just a must-have going forward. So, this will be clearly automatic takeoff and landing.”

“We’re just not going to put another airplane out in the future without it," he continued, referring to automatic takeoff and landing capabilities.

When it comes to actually controlling the drone, GA-ASI is leveraging its Scalable Command and Control (SC2) system, which it has been developing for the U.S. Army. This is a software-based ground control system that requires only limited hardware, such as a Toughbook-style ruggedized laptop tied into a line-of-sight datalink on the ground. Mojave will also have a beyond-line-of-sight control capability via satellite link.

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The Scalable Command and Control (SC2) system.

Mojave might feature more autonomous capabilities in the future “on the mission side, as well," Alexander said. He specifically highlighted GA-ASI's participation in the Air Force's Skyborg program as an example of the work the company is already doing in this field. Skyborg is focused on the development of an artificial intelligence-driven "computer brain" and an associated suite of systems that would be used to operate semi-autonomous loyal wingman-type unmanned aircraft, as well as potentially fully autonomous unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV). 

Beyond all this, Mojave's "STOL capability increases the number of employment options available ... potentially including aircraft carrier-based options, unlocking naval missions or sea-based support for special operations forces," GA-ASI's press release says. Company simulations indicate that the drone, coupled with an automated landing system like Raytheon's Joint Precision Approach and Landing System (JPALS), "could go off a flat deck carrier today," according to Alexander. 

If the carrier was going at speed of at least 20 knots the unmanned aircraft, in an appropriate configuration, should be able to take off without the need of a catapult and, after a sortie, would be recovered without having to use any sort of arresting gear. The endurance versus takeoff roll chart seen earlier in this piece suggests that Mojave could have an endurance of between 10 and 12 hours when launched off a carrier-sized landing area with no weapons. This could be hugely valuable to carrier strike groups and expeditionary strike groups, providing everything from persistent armed overwatch for force protection missions in 'brown water' environments to airborne communications relay and surveillance functions in 'blue water' environments. The Marines could also use Mojave in an amphibious assault ship-based close air support and strike role. There is also the possibility of anti-submarine warfare applications, as well. 

As for who might be looking to buy examples of these drones already, GA-ASI has seen “a tremendous amount of interest in the concept and in the aircraft itself," according to Senior Director of Marketing & Strategic Communications Brinkley. However, he and Alexander declined to say specifically who they have been talking to already about Mojave. They did say, broadly, that there have been discussions with representatives from multiple U.S. service branches and a number of potential foreign customers.

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Mojave's thick wing is seen clearly in this flight test image. 

“The original idea on this, again, was special ops, downrange, very expeditionary," Alexander said, indicating that the design was being targeted, at least in part, at special operations units. He specifically referenced the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command's (AFSOC) Armed Overwatch program, but acknowledged that initiative is not currently considering unmanned platforms.

“We were hoping there’d be an unmanned part to the Armed Overwatch [program], we haven’t given up on that," he said. “I think it’s a mistake not to include an unmanned aspect to that program."

The U.S. Army's elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, which is already a major user of MQ-1Cs, including the GE-ER subvariant, might be another potential special operations customer. It's not hard to see how special operations forces, in the United States and elsewhere, would be interested in a readily deployable unmanned platform with a high degree of persistence, as well as payload capacity, especially to support small footprint missions, such as counter-terrorism operations, in relatively semi-permissive environments. 

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An MQ-1C assigned to Company E, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment on display in 2013.

Mojave's performance, together with its payload and flexible deployment capabilities, could make it an attractive and potentially lower-cost option to take the place of more conventional manned and unmanned aircraft typically used to support those kinds of missions. The U.S. Air Force, in particular, looks set to be blocked again from retiring the venerable A-10 Warthog ground-attack aircraft, but continues to advocate for doing so. Mojave would be capable of performing some of the same missions sets while operating from similar forward locations and could present a new path to replacing the A-10, at least in part.

In addition, the Air Force, among other branches of the U.S. military, as well companies like General Atomics, are exploring ways to employ their existing slower, non-stealthy drones, such as the MQ-1C and the MQ-9, in support of higher-end conflicts. These proposed concepts of operation typically envision drones in this general category conducting various kinds of stand-off missions on edge of more contested airspace, including air-launching smaller drones into those higher-risk zones. 

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An artist's conception of a Gray Eagle Extended Range carrying various payloads including smaller air-launched drones and a self-protection pod.

These same kinds of unmanned aircraft could provide useful persistent surveillance and force protection capabilities in rear areas, as well. Mojave offers potential additional benefits to support those missions via its increased suitability for expeditionary and distributed concepts of operations as a result of its small logistical footprint and short takeoff and landing capabilities. The Air Force demonstrated its increasing ability to automatically land MQ-9 Reapers at more austere airstrips without the need for a pre-survey earlier this year, a capability that could be valuable in various contexts going forward. That service, among others, is increasingly concerned about how vulnerable known bases with established runways might be during future high-end conflicts, which has prompted renewed interest in ideas for how to distribute forces and project power from austere locations with limited infrastructure.

The U.S. Marine Corps, which officially began operating its own Reapers this year, is refining its own new core operating concept, known as Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO). At its most basic, EABO revolves around the idea of being able to rapidly deploy and reposition relatively small, but still highly capable Marine task forces to establish bases in forward areas, including on remote islands. These flexible responsive forces would then be able to help exert control over surrounding littoral areas and "seaspaces" to deter opponents and, failing that, be in an ideal position to engage them.

Among its many parts, EABO envisions new unmanned aircraft, including the Marine Corps' burgeoning MQ-9 fleet, as being key components of these future task forces. Mojave would seem to be much better suited to this concept of operations than the Reaper. Brinkley, GA-ASI's Senior Director of Marketing & Strategic Communications, seemed to allude to this, at least to a degree, when he mentioned that company has seen "people’s eyes start to light up with sort of understanding, especially as you start to think about INDOPACOM, start to think about the possibility of landing on a hard-packed beach somewhere, or some of the really truly expeditionary possibilities." INDOPACOM refers to the Indo-Pacific region and is the acronym for the U.S. military's top command overseeing operations in that part of the world.

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A US Marine Corps MQ-9 Reaper.

Other American allies and partners around the world, but especially in the Pacific and in Europe, are presented with many of the same challenges and have similar requirements in support of new or otherwise evolving concepts of operations. Smaller countries elsewhere around the world with more limited infrastructure, to begin with, could have their own interests in a very capable unmanned platform to support counter-terrorism and other lower-intensity missions. Mojave's Predator/Reaper/Gray Eagle pedigree would only make it more attractive compared to competing designs.

Though the U.S. government has sought to make it easier to export unmanned aircraft technology under the Trump administration, GA-ASI's Brinkley still stressed that it remained easiest to pitch the company's products to countries that are part of NATO or are otherwise key U.S. allies. The company has established relationships with a number of NATO members through the sale of MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reapers, as well as improved derivatives of the latter design.

"When you consider a lot of the posture of NATO, certainly a lot of their naval posture would be a good fit for this aircraft," Brinkley said. "You see a lot of ramped carriers and things that operate across NATO allies, which ... could be useful to them perhaps.”

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Mojave on the runway during a recent flight test.

NATO members in Europe, especially those along the alliance's eastern flank, face the very real prospect of not having assured access to their established runways on land during a major conflict, particularly one with Russia. Mojave with its impressive STOL capabilities and a large payload could be very useful in that context, where roads might become more readily available runways.

All told, Mojave, though derived from an existing General Atomics design, represents a very interesting new direction for the company. "We think there’s a mission out there for this aircraft," Brinkley said.

It will certainly be interesting to see how Mojave evolves as testing continues and who might publicly emerge as potential customers for the hardy drone going forward.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com