This Is A Great Comparison Between General Atomics’ Avenger Drone Configurations

Examples of General Atomics Avenger and Avenger ER unmanned aircraft were spotted landing after taking part in a major exercise.

byJoseph Trevithick and Tyler Rogoway|
U.S. Homeland photo


Two pictures taken earlier this week at El Mirage Field in California offer an excellent comparison of the relative sizes and other features between General Atomics' stealthy Avenger unmanned aircraft and its larger cousin, the Avenger Extend Range, or Avenger ER. The drones had been out earlier in the day with various U.S. Air Force aircraft, including an RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone, and testbed jets belonging to a number of defense contractors, as part of the latest iteration of the Orange Flag exercise. The Avenger and Avenger ER participation in the drill appears to be linked in some way to the Air Force's Skyborg program, which is developing artificial intelligence-driven autonomous capabilities for use on "loyal wingman" type drones, as well as unmanned combat air vehicles, or UCAVs.

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@AircraftSpots grabbed the shots of the Avenger and Avenger ER, which carry the U.S. civil registration codes N901PC and N903PC, respectively, as they returned to El Mirage on Oct. 26, 2021. This is a private airfield owned by General Atomics and used for various research and development and test and evaluation purposes. The original Avenger, also known as the Predator C, first flew in 2009. The first flight of the larger Avenger ER took place in 2016. You can read more about both types here.

There is some confusion about what official nomenclature the U.S. Air Force uses for the Avenger and Avenger ER. The designation YQ-11 has been associated with the Avenger in the past. More recently, MQ-20 has been used, but that may only apply to the Avenger ER. It's also unclear how many Avengers the Air Force or other U.S. government agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency, might actually own. The Air Force has confirmed purchasing one and initially indicated that it might be sent to Afghanistan for field testing, something the service subsequently denied. General Atomics has said in the past that it has sold “up to seven” more of these drones to an unspecified U.S. government entity and that at least one of those was used to drop propaganda leaflets in Syria. You can read more about what we know of the operational history of U.S. government-owned Avengers here. There have also been reports about potential sales to foreign customers, including India, that have not materialized.

A General Atomics Avenger, with the US civil registration code N901PC, photographed landing at El Mirage Field on Oct. 26, 2021., @aircraftspots

The Avenger and the Avenger ER both have the same general configuration, with swept 'lambda'-like wing, v-tail, dorsal-mounted engine intake, chined fuselage, and shrouded exhaust. However, as is clear from @AircraftSpots' pictures, the Avenger ER is substantially larger in all respects. The standard Avenger has a wingspan of 66 feet and an overall length of 44 feet, with a maximum takeoff weight of around 18,200 pounds, of which 7,900 pounds is fuel. 

The Avenger ER's wingspan is 10 feet wider, and it has a significantly longer forward fuselage. General Atomics has said it can carry 2,000 pounds of additional fuel, giving it five more hours of total flying time over its smaller cousin's 15-hour endurance.

The Avenger ER, with the U.S. civil registration code N903PC, as it also approached El Mirage on Oct. 26., @aircraftspots

In 2016, General Atomics said that Avenger and Avenger ER had the same internal payload bay, which could accommodate up to 3,000 pounds of sensors, including outsized ones, or munitions. The Avenger ER's payload capacity has since grown to 4,000 pounds, according to company press releases. The Avenger ER is also regularly seen with a sensor turret under the nose, something not usually seen on standard Avengers that are used for testing. 

The overall design is low-observable, meaning it has reduced radar and infrared signatures, but it is not to be compared to a very low-observable asset where stealth is the primary driver of the design. 

A top-down look at a standard Avenger drone., General Atomics/Tyson Rininger

In this particular case, both N901PC and N903PC were carrying Lockheed Martin Legion Pods, as well. The Avenger and Avenger ER have each been observed equipped with these pods in the past. The Legion Pod has an IRST21 infrared search and track (IRST) system mounted at the front, but the center section is designed to accept additional modular, open-architecture payloads. Earlier this year, Lockheed Martin announced that the Air Force had been testing a version of the pod equipped with a datalink allowing for the transfer of information from one to another “near instantaneously."

A Lockheed Martin infographic describing the basic capabilities of the Legion Pod., Lockheed Martin

As for what the two drones were doing, we don't know for sure, but the controllers for N901PC and N903PC were using the callsigns Skyborg 01 and Skyborg 03, respectively. In addition, in June, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) announced that an Avenger ER had carried a version of the Skyborg "autonomy core system," or ACS, the computer brain being developed as part of that project, during an earlier iteration of Orange Flag. In August, General Atomics said it had demonstrated the ability of a Legion Pod-equipped Avenger to autonomously spot, track, and follow targets of interest, though it did not specifically say that test had been in support of the Skyborg program.

In December 2020, General Atomics, along with Boeing and Kratos, was selected to provide actual unmanned aircraft for Skyborg testing. That same month, the company announced it had test-flown an unspecified Avenger type equipped with a different "autonomy engine," which had been originally developed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and is now maintained by the U.S. Navy, on a mock aerial combat mission together with five other simulated drones. That test had also been linked to the Skyborg program.

The two Avenger types participating in Orange Flag, either carrying Skyborg-related systems or otherwise acting as surrogates for the capabilities that the program is developing, makes good sense. It would also be valuable to have them there as part of work on adjacent projects, such as the Legion Pod. The Air Force held its first Orange Flag in 2018. The exercise is one of a number of so-called "test flags," which are intended to explore new technologies and concepts of operations in the context of a large force exercise that is more representative of a real-world conflict. You can read more about these exercises here.

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Online flight tracking software and publicly broadcast radio communications showed that a Cessna 210 from private contractor Chalk 2, which regularly works with General Atomics drones, was also in the air acting as a chase plane. Boeing's unique Catfish 757 testbed, Raytheon's 'Voodoo 1' 727 sensor test jet, and a Calspan Aerospace Learjet capable of acting as a surrogate for various unmanned platforms were also noted flying east of Edwards Air Force Base as part of the Orange Flag exercise. 

One of the Air Force's RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drones was also spotted flying around Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif., before it also headed to the exercise area. Plant 42 is home, among other things, to Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works advanced projects division, which developed these unmanned aircraft. 

A number of Air Force aerial refueling tankers were up in the air at the time, as well. It's certain that other Air Force aircraft, and possibly aircraft from other branches of the U.S. military, took part in the exercise, too, but weren't necessarily trackable publicly.

In this Orange Flag exercise, the Avenger and Avenger ER, specifically, could have used their Legion Pods to autonomously search for aerial threats and then pursue them, all while passing that data to other platforms. In addition, IRST systems are not impacted by a stealthy target's radar-absorbing features, making it an ideal way to detect those targets. All told, drones equipped in this manner could greatly expand the entire friendly force's ability to quickly find and engage aerial targets, as well as provide additional overall situational awareness. 

If the pods have built-in datalinks, the two different Avengers would be able to provide instant triangulation of targets, as well. A single IRST-equipped aircraft cannot readily determine the range of a threat, though workarounds are possible, as you can read more about in this past War Zone feature. This, in turn, would allow the pair to generate engagement quality telemetry. A notional loyal wingman drone capable of carrying its own air-to-air weaponry could then be able to target a threat directly, or this data could be passed to other platforms. Since IRST systems are passive sensors, an opponent might not even know it was in danger, especially if another friendly platform then engaged it from beyond visual range.

A graphic depicting the fusion of data from networked Legion Pods on a pair of F-16Ds., Lockheed Martin

These are exactly the kinds of capabilities that the Air Force hopes it will get from the advanced loyal wingmen drone concepts being explored now under the Skyborg program. The service also hopes that effort will lead into the development of larger, more capable fully autonomous UCAVs, as well. 

All told, it seems it seems very likely that we will only continue to see more of General Atomics' two Avenger designs support Skyborg, as well as other developmental efforts. However, it may be less common to see them contrasted together as well as they were in the pair of pictures @AircraftSpots took at El Mirage. 

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