Four Firms Selected To Develop Enterprise Test Vehicle Project’s Mass-Produced Drones

Composite image showing the designs currently disclosed. (Image credit: Integrated Solutions for Systems, Leidos Dynetics, and Zone 5 Technologies, edited by The Aviationist)

The U.S. Air Force and the Defense Innovation Unit partnered to develop an enterprise test vehicle (ETV) that demonstrates modularity for subsystem upgrade testing, leveraging commercial and dual-use technologies.

The Air Force Armament Directorate and the Defense Innovation Unit joined forces to identify and prototype commercial and dual-use technology solutions for an Enterprise Test Vehicle that demonstrates modularity for subsystem upgrade testing. The Enterprise Test Vehicle project will also serve as foundation for a cheap mass production.

“We are excited to partner with DIU. The ETV presents an opportunity to leverage promising ideas from industry to create and refine affordable designs for test capabilities that can be produced on a relevant timeline,” said Andrew Hunter, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.

Four companies have been selected, including Anduril Industries, Integrated Solutions for Systems, Inc., Leidos Dynetics, and Zone 5 Technologies. The DSU mentions these vendors were selected from more than 100 commercial and dual-use technology company applicants.

Initial flight demonstrations are planned occur within seven months from the agreement award dates, but the press release later adds that they are expected for in late summer/fall 2024, suggesting that the contracts were awarded in early 2024. After the demonstrations, one or multiple of the most promising prototypes will continue development toward a production variant capable of rapidly scalable manufacture.

In order to keep the ETVs affordable, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components are being used wherever possible. The competitors will also leverage modern design for manufacturing approaches, ensuring air vehicles are not over-engineered for their intended mission, minimize use of expensive materials, and enable on-call high-rate production that is not possible with more exquisite counterparts.

File photo of an AGM-158 JASSM being loaded on a B-52H. The ETV will be a cheaper alternatives to expensive weapons such as JASSM. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Zachary Wright)

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File photo of an AGM-158 JASSM being loaded on a B-52H. The ETV will be a cheaper alternatives to expensive weapons such as JASSM. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Zachary Wright)

“This award is a great example of how we are partnered closely with the Air Force to drive innovation for the warfighter, with the focus, speed, and scale necessary to achieve strategic impact. Together, we are harnessing the power of commercial technology to meet a critical operational need for straightforward, affordable, and quickly scalable autonomous systems in the air,” said Doug Beck, Director, Defense Innovation Unit. “DIU is committed to pursuing a number of initiatives to accelerate autonomy within the Department including the adoption and scaling of trusted commercial autonomy and improving our ability to counter adversarial systems.”

The ETV project’s designs

The Enterprise Test Vehicle will use the now standard open systems architecture approach, allowing quick and easy updates with modular subsystems. Previously, DIU said that the ETV should have a range of 500 nm (926 km) and also be able to deliver a kinetic payload at highly subsonic speed.

Both DIU and the Air Force requested to maximize the use of COTS components to keep the cost low. In fact, the cost goal for bulk order of the system once in full-rate production is $ 150,000 per unit, much lower than the price of a “classic” cruise missile such as the AGM-158 JASSM or the Joint Strike Missile whose prices are in excess of one million dollars.

No mention has been made of the Replicator program, and although they share similar goals, they appear to be separate initiatives. In fact, Replicator aims to build thousands of “attritable” drones that should be “small, smart, cheap”, creating mass to bring to a future fight.

Anduril, which was also selected for the Collaborative Combat Aircraft program, expects to be able to deliver an affordable, modular and capable prototype that can quickly fill critical gaps, with a large-scale manufacturing that will allow to achieve affordable mass.

Leidos Dynetics is leveraging its experience with the GBU-69 Small Glide Munition and the air-launched and air-recovered X-61 Gremlin. Similarly, Zone 5 intends to progress its technologies for the new Unmanned Aerial System starting from its experience with Air-Launched Effects.

Stefano D’Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he’s also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.

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