Boeing Australia’s Loyal Wingman drone successfully completed its first low-speed runway taxi maneuver and is on track to begin flight later this year. “Reaching a maximum speed of 14 knots (approximately 16 mph, or 26 kilometers per hour), on the ground, the aircraft demonstrated several activities while maneuvering and stopping on command,” a company news release explained. Several of the drone prototype’s systems were tested, including engine, brake, and steering controls.
The Loyal Wingman drone is currently being developed in partnership with the Royal Australian Air Force and is intended to augment piloted airframes during combat. In this capacity, drones like the Loyal Wingman could perform a variety of missions including decidedly non-combat flights like reconnaissance and surveillance, as well as protecting pilots from enemy missiles—by sacrificing themselves—or by firing on enemy planes.
Boeing company material states that the Loyal Wingman will eventually fly “alongside other platforms, using artificial intelligence for such teaming missions.” The drone’s mission flexibility is facilitated in part by a “modular nose section that’s customizable for specific needs and a conventional takeoff and landing approach suitable for many missions and runway types.”
Though the exact details still need to be fleshed out more concretely, the Loyal Wingman’s mission profile will likely differ significantly from older drone platforms like the immediately-recognizable Reaper and Predator drones. Boeing Airpower Teaming System—essentially groups of Loyal Wingmen—will provide a number of previously unseen drone capabilities.
Among them are: fighter-like performance, 2,000+ nautical mile range, onboard sensor suite that will help the drone perform surveillance and reconnaissance as well as provide early warning alerts, and the ability to fly either on their own or accompanying other manned aircraft. And, if all goes according to plan, Boeing hopes to begin test flights rather than just taxiing maneuvers sometimes this year.
America’s other aerospace manufacturing heavyweights are making steady strides toward autonomous, networked drones. But they’re not the only country that wants to field a similar capability in the near future—nor the only country with prototypes in the research and development pipeline.
Drones for Me, Drones for You
Perhaps one of the most significant advanced drone programs is the U.S. Air Force Skyborg Program. The program hopes to develop an “autonomy-focused capability that will enable the Air Force to operate and sustain low-cost, teamed aircraft that can thwart adversaries with quick, decisive actions in contested environments.” Essentially intelligent and expendable drones.
But the United States isn’t the only country with a horse in the race. Russia is also making strides in the field of drones, albeit with lesser capabilities than their American counterparts. Russia’s large Okhotnik reconnaissance drone is a large, roughly twenty-ton drone featuring a flying wing design—a design that is inherently stealthy despite Russia’s heretofore lack of success in with low-observable technologies.
Unlike Boeing’s Loyal Wingman, the Okhotnik is meant to conduct reconnaissance rather than direct combat, though the information gleaned from the Russian program could no doubt be redirected in the future towards a direct-action platform.
Though likely behind, Russia’s advanced drone program is also moving along. Several European countries are also joining forces to build their own, home-grown drones, though their most recent effort is unlikely to provide a serious challenge to American drone manufacturing. For now at least, the United States is leading the pack. Watch this topic for further future information.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.