General Atomics’ Gambit Drones To Have Different Airframes With Common ‘Cores’

General Atomics is pitching a modular family of drones intended to perform various missions alongside manned aircraft that all use a common chassis-like ‘core.’

byEmma Helfrich|
GA-ASI Gambit series drones


General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, or GA-ASI, has announced its new Gambit Series of unmanned combat aircraft, expanding upon the inaugural Gambit drone unveiled by the company this March. The family of drones will be made up of four uniquely different airframes that all leverage a novel common core. The idea is similar to how various automotive ‘body kits’ can share a common chassis, drivetrain, and electronics backbone, which could potentially offer big opportunities for mission and performance customization while still leveraging economies of scale. 

The unveiling took place amid this year’s Air & Space Force Association Air, Space, and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. The Gambit Series is among the most notable announcements coming from GA-ASI as the company claims that drones will be pivotal in preserving air dominance on an increasingly human-less battlefield. The company is also specifically pitching the entire series as its answer to the U.S. Air Force’s future Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) requirements. CCA is a component of the service’s larger Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, which includes multiple initiatives aimed at developing next-generation families of aircraft by leveraging the resources of different companies to achieve a cost- and time-efficient manufacturing process.

According to GA-ASI, each model in the series, aptly named Gambit 1 through 4, will be engineered with a central physical core structure on top of which the rest of the aircraft is to be attached. This common set of hardware has been dubbed the ‘Gambit Core’ and is made up of landing gear, baseline avionics, a chassis, and other essential functions. 

Concept sketches of the Gambit Series drones. Credit: GA-ASI

With the novel Gambit Core, GA-ASI hopes to pull inspiration from the automotive industry and manufacture Gambit drones through methods reminiscent of a commercial vehicle assembly line. The company claims that the Gambit Core will account for about 70% of the price among the various Gambit-series airframes, which could thereby lower manufacturing costs and increase development speed.

“Imagine watching a wheelset, chassis, and powertrain produced on an automotive assembly line,” read the GA-ASI press release. “One kit might turn left in the factory and become a luxury sedan. The next might turn right and become the family economy model. The common platform saves cost and complexity for the manufacturer. The different trim and other options offer choice and value to the buyer.”

The Gambit Core can then be transformed into any of the four variants to support their unique missions, according to GA-ASI. The company explains that the addition of different engines, fuselages, wings, and other internal and external characteristics will be included in this process, which will result in the visually distinctive Gambit drones set to make up the new family.

Gambit 1, which is the design that GA-ASI unveiled back in March before revealing that it was part of a larger modular family, is now described by GA-ASI as the air domain awareness variant of the series. It will be intended specifically for long-endurance sensing missions with the ability to accompany other unmanned aircraft or manned aircraft so as to scout out the area ahead of a strike package or patrol for long ranges. While Gambit 1 will not be intended to carry weapons, GA-ASI expects that the weight savings from its high-aspect wings paired with a fuel-optimized engine will allow the drone to serve as an early warning and surveillance asset for significant periods of time. 

Credit: GA-ASI

“Working in concert with other unmanned aircraft or legacy platforms, [Gambit 1] can cue other sensors onto a target or support a collective track using passive sensors, obviating a hostile fighter’s ability to delay detection by enemy radar,” GA-ASI said.

Gambit 2, on the other hand, will be the variant that provides the firepower. An added provision for air-to-air weapons will increase the drone’s weight and correspondingly sacrifice its speed and endurance, but GA-ASI insists that Gambit 2 will more than make up for it with its versatile weapons payload. The company claims that Gambit 2 will uphold the collaborative nature of the series through manned-unmanned teaming capabilities but also perform in scenarios where the drone would need to be highly autonomous. 

“Imagine a trio of Gambit 2 aircraft looking toward an enemy coastline from different altitudes at different angles,” GA-ASI said. “One of them detects an inbound hostile stealthy fighter. Gambit 2 immediately can cue its wingmen onto the target with their own sensors and confirm the track generated by the first one. All this might take place via infrared — meaning no telltale radio frequency emissions to tip off the enemy. The hostile fighter’s front aspect is designed to defeat radar returns, but that becomes irrelevant when it’s being tracked this way and from two or three different perspectives.”

In this situation, GA-ASI explains that Gambit 2 could then react by alerting human-piloted fighters to the threat with a burst transmission (or a quick, hard-to-detect transmission), wave off to evade the hostile fighter, or even attack with its own weapons using artificial intelligence to harass and trap the enemy fighter. No matter the route Gambit 2 takes, in a scenario like the one described by GA-ASI, the drone presents the opportunity to assess and even engage an aerial threat without the need for a human pilot onboard.

Credit: GA-ASI

According to the product sketches of each model released by GA-ASI, Gambit 3 will look a lot like Gambit 2 except for its shorter wings and a more pointed aerodynamic nose, which is the first physical evolution in what seems to be a clear progression visible between the initial three Gambits at least in terms of their planform. Gambit 3 will also instead be optimized for a complex adversary air role. GA-ASI explains that Gambit 3 will be a training/aggressor system against which U.S. fighters and air defense systems will be tested, enabling pilots and aircrews to train with realistic threats in a cost-efficient manner.

“Gambit 3 supports complex multiship adversary air tactics in a way no human-crewed aircraft could, learning from each engagement and adapting their tactics,” GA-ASI said. “This breed of Gambit offsets significant training costs by providing U.S. assets 5th-generation sensor technology without burning up F-35 and F-22 fleet hours.”

Credit: GA-ASI

Finally, Gambit 4, the last model in the Gambit Series of unmanned combat aircraft, is described by GA-ASI as being a combat reconnaissance-focused flying wing design optimized for long-endurance missions of a “specialized nature.” Gambit 4’s silhouette is similar to many other preexisting stealthy flying wing unmanned aircraft designs and concepts, like GA-ASI’s own MQ-Next proposal, and it would appear that the company is hoping for it to carry out a similar kind of mission. 

Gambit 4 will feature low-observable (stealthy) elements and “other advanced systems” so as to better avoid enemy detection on missions where penetrating deep into contested areas is key. GA-ASI hopes that these physical characteristics paired with a long-endurance capability will enable Gambit 4 to serve as a highly survivable sensing and networking asset, but not much else was revealed about it likely due to its future role as a specialized intelligence-gathering platform. 

Gambit 4 infographic. Credit: GA-ASI

GA-ASI went on to explain that the Gambit Series of unmanned aircraft will be manufactured at the company’s recently announced Secure Advanced Manufacturing facility located in San Diego, California, which is set to officially open next year. While the Gambit Core concept aims to help keep the cost of fielding various aerial combat drones low, it would appear that a separate effort is still required to develop Gambit’s software that would allow it to achieve the high levels of autonomy GA-ASI is touting. That being said, in terms of advances autonomy, as well as in artificial intelligence and machine learning to support that work, the Air Force has already been making progress through various programs, including in cooperation with GA-ASI itself.

The proposed Gambit family is the latest corporate development in regard to the Air Force’s budding CCA program. While specific requirements for the CCA program have yet to be revealed, Aviation Weekly did report Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall was clear in statements earlier this year that his expectation that is that the winning unmanned aircraft designs would not be described as “low cost” and instead would be expected to cost half the price of the future NGAD. Assuming he means the manned tactical aircraft portion of NGAD, that aircraft will cost "multiple hundreds of millions of dollars" according to Kendall. Still, it isn't clear exactly what this means, but, when it comes to CCA, one would think that the price would include a sizeable package of unmanned airframes and their support architecture.  

While companies like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have already laid out their visions for a multi-tier ‘system of systems’ to meet the Air Force’s CCA requirements, GA-ASI’s pitch sets itself apart by including its unconventional core architecture and production concept. At the same time, it does raise questions about whether a single common core, also projected to include common landing gear, could be so easily slotted into such diverse designs. There will clearly be some tradeoffs with such a high degree of modularity. Although, if the Gambit Core concept works, then it could potentially make it easier to develop service or country-specific variants that retain high degrees of physical and functional commonality and interoperability with other Gambit types.

A rendering of the first Gambit concept that was revealed this March. Credit: GA-ASI

It will be interesting to see General Atomics work to turn what sounds like a very convenient and exciting modular concept for the USAF's CCA needs into a reality, if that does indeed come to pass. It will also be interesting to see how glaring some of the concept's limitations will be. But, at least on paper, it is a unique and intriguing approach to the problem that takes modularity to a whole other level.

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