The Weekly Debrief: GA-ASI Unveils Auto-Inspired Gambit Platform For Future UAS

GA-ASI has proposed a new Gambit series of UAS derived from a common core platform.
Credit: GA-ASI

A cost-saving core platform that shares a common design, engineering and production system and major components with four types of uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS) optimized for different missions has emerged as General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.’s (GA-ASI) vision for the U.S. Air Force’s future Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program.

Under the Gambit Series unveiled on Sept. 19 by GA-ASI, there will be a family of CCA supported by a core platform, which includes a load-bearing chassis, landing gear and baseline avionics. Attaching different sets of wings, fuselages, inlets and engines to this core platform would produce different CCAs optimized for different missions, such as intelligence gathering, air-to-air combat and adversary air training.

In GA-ASI’s view, the Gambit core platform would account for 70% of the overall cost of each member in the family of UAS, limiting the cost of designing and producing the unique structural and propulsion components to 30% of each type.

“High-rate manufacturing of the core system enables extreme cost savings to all the variants that come from the common platform,” GA-ASI says in a news release announcing the Gambit series.

The Gambit concept addresses only the cost of fielding the airframes and engines of a CCA program. A separate effort would be needed to develop the autonomy software that would function as the aircraft’s “brain,” making decisions on how to execute a mission in a way similar to a human pilot. GA-ASI is designing the Gambit to be operated by external sources for the autonomy software, but the UAS manufacturer is also developing autonomous software capabilities of its own.

The concept emerges seven months after Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall proposed the service’s new vision for a CCA program to augment the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program and potentially the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider.

Most details of the Air Force’s requirements for the CCA program have not been revealed, but Kendall has been clear he does not expect the resulting aircraft to be described as “low cost.” Instead, he expects the CCA to cost at least half as much as the NGAD aircraft, which he has said will be priced at hundreds of millions of dollars each.

But the GA-ASI approach appears to suggest an alternative to a family of a UAS that could cover a wide range of missions, yet cost significantly less than developing four, independently designed UAS that would be optimized to perform different roles.

The core platform concept borrows from a decades-old design philosophy in the automotive industry. In the 1960s, for example, GM designed a single chassis, including a wheelbase, drivetrain and suspension. This core platform was developed into different models sold by each of GM’s major brands. The practice later became widespread throughout the automotive industry.

In 2019, GA-ASI was among several companies that the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) selected to demonstrate a similar design approach for a new generation of low-cost UAS. The Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Platform Sharing (LCAAPS) called for GA-ASI and other companies to design a UAS chassis that could be shared by a family of different designs.

“Under this program we’re testing a couple of hypotheses,” Douglas Meador, an AFRL deputy program manager, told Aviation Week in 2020. “One is that you can build different species of aircraft with different speeds, ranges and payloads. It’s essentially how the automotive industry does it. They don’t start over every year with a different chassis for each vehicle. They share the chassis and subsystems and software among their production lines.”

The Gambit concept could also challenge the appropriations process. It is not clear how the current approach to government spending—which is generally limited to one aircraft type per line item in the budget—could support a family of different aircraft designed around a core platform.

Another uncertainty may be the Air Force’s level of comfort with selecting a single contractor that would develop a common platform to meet all of its UAS requirements. In recent years, the AFRL has promoted concepts that feature government ownership of the reference architecture and intellectual property of future UAS, with the goal of preventing a single company from locking out other competitors.

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.