Meet the Air Force’s secretive long-range drone that flies for days

Meet the Air Force’s secretive long-range drone that flies for days

The U.S. Air Force is getting closer to realizing its vision of low-cost surveillance drones with an autonomous drone that can fly for more than three straight days. And it’s already flying missions in the Middle East. 

The Ultra Long-Endurance Tactical Reconnaissance Aircraft, or ULTRA, was operating in the shadows until U.S. Central Command in May inadvertently revealed that the drone was deployed in the Middle East by releasing pictures of it at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates.

Developed by drone maker DZYNE Technologies in conjunction with the Air Force Research Laboratory, the ULTRA promises a “new chapter” for the services as they steer away from expensive, legacy ISR aircraft, the company said. Before the drone photos were released, DZYNE had remained quiet about its long-endurance programs because it was working directly with warfighters on “active missions,” said Matt McCue, CEO of DZYNE. 

“The business was brought forth by really working with the end users. We were brought into usually secure, classified environments, they would talk about a need that they couldn’t get from industry, and we would put together a program for them and help them solve a problem,” McCue told Defense One.  

The Air Force officially started buying ULTRA, which began under the DOD’s small business innovation research program (SBIR), in the 2025 budget request, and asked to buy four drones for $35 million, according to budget documents. The program was developed from DZYNE’s Long Endurance Aircraft Program, or LEAP, McCue said, a previously under wraps autonomous aircraft deployed since 2016 that can fly for up to 40 hours.

The glider-like ULTRA drone can stay in the air for 80 hours without refueling or landing, and can carry payloads weighing up to 400 pounds. ULTRA costs just a fraction of the price of a legacy surveillance aircraft, DZYNE says, such as the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, which costs roughly $30 million apiece.

“This is an example of a solution we brought to our customer for an urgent need where they just couldn’t afford the price that they were getting from General Atomics or Northrop Grumman for some of their more exquisite technologies,” McCue said. 

ULTRA’s development comes as the Air Force looks to fill some of its reconnaissance gaps with cheap, attritable ISR drones. The MQ-9 has been used for surveillance in the Middle East since it became operational in 2008, but is now viewed by the Air Force as too expensive and vulnerable. Multiple MQ-9s have been shot down in the Middle East over the past year,  bolstering critics’ points that it’s not sustainable to fly an aircraft at that cost in a contested environment. 

“By having airplanes that are nearly an order magnitude cheaper or less expensive, but still very capable and longer endurance and more capability, it’s made the government have a strong value proposition to not have to go to use the status quo and continue to pay the prices they have,” McCue said. 

The MQ-9 Reaper was developed as a strike aircraft, but only a “single-digit percentage” of surveillance missions have required a strike capability, McCue said, so the Pentagon realized it doesn’t need to fly a “Ferrari” when it can just use a “pickup truck” and essentially load it up with a bunch of sensors.

DZYNE has been able to keep ULTRA costs low by using commercially available parts, McCue said, instead of relying on bespoke manufacturing. The company converted a “previously manned commercial sport gilder” to a military drone, according to AFRL. 

Demand for more surveillance in the Middle East has increased since the Israel-Hamas war sparked a regional crisis last fall. And in Africa, the U.S. recently announced its troops are leaving Niger, which was used as a key base for surveillance operations in the region.  

But with ULTRA’s long-endurance capability, McCue said the U.S. military could fly the drone out of Sigonella, Italy, for example, and still perform missions over Africa. This would allow the U.S. military to fly over “multiple COCOMs from a single location, which is not something that’s been available to commanders before.”

“Part of the ethos of why ULTRA is unique is it provides mission flexibility to the users, considering this very challenging time we have with recent withdrawals over the last several years from certain countries and certain major affairs that are ongoing that are sensitive to the U.S. national security interests,” McCue said. 

Beyond the Middle East, DZYNE sees the drone as optimally suited for long-endurance missions in the Indo-Pacific, where basing options are limited. ULTRA can loiter for a day over a target after flying over 2,000 miles, McCue said. 

“Especially for these upcoming, urgent areas like INDOPACOM, where you have the tyranny of distance between basing that are thousands of miles away, hundreds of thousands of miles away, that most airplanes and assets aren’t useful, an asset like this is very, very powerful for those kinds of theaters because they’re long range areas,” he said.

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