Here's What You Need to Know: The military envisions at least fifteen different potential types of missions for the drones.
In September 2020, Boeing Australia announced that it had conducted the first engine run of the "artificial intelligence-powered teaming aircraft" for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). This milestone came on the heels of Boeing completing the first unmanned Loyal Wingman aircraft for the RAAF earlier in the year. The unmanned vehicle serves as the foundation for the global Boeing Airpower Teaming System, an AI-powered teaming aircraft developed for the global defense market.
"This engine run gets us closer toward flying the first aircraft later this year and was successful thanks to the collaboration and dedication of our team," said Dr. Shane Arnott, program director of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System. "We've been able to select a very light, off-the-shelf jet engine for the unmanned system as a result of the advanced manufacturing technologies applied to the aircraft."
Status of Skyborg
Boeing Australia's announcement was followed by news that the United States Air Force's "Skyborg" program—which is one of the service's top science-and-technology priorities under the "Vanguard" initiative to deliver potential game changing capabilities to America's warfighters—could soon undergo operational experimentation.
National Defense reported that the Air Force's autonomous platform could be used to conduct so-called "kamikaze missions"—should a human pilot decide if it is necessary for the drone to go on a "one-way mission." This could include situations where there is an opportunity to strike a "lucrative target" that would justify the cost of losing the drone, said Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper during an online event hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
"I expect that we will do sorties where a set number are expected to fly with the manned systems, and we'll have crazy new [concepts of operation] for how they'll be used," Roper explained.
The AI-powered drones could take risks that the military wouldn't be willing to take with human pilots, but that doesn't mean that these would be akin to flying bombs, however.
Instead, it is far more likely that while Skyborg is seen as an "attritable aircraft" it would largely serve as robotic wingmen for a variety of aircraft such as bombers and tankers Roper suggested. They could bring a variety of capabilities to the battlefield that include serving as sensors, jammers and even when necessary—and with human oversight—shooters.
Drones such as the Skyborg can also be used to protect high value airframes like the F-22 Raptor or the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter by taking on higher risk missions those planes would normally take—and even more importantly, invaluable pilot lives.
Many Potential Missions
The military envisions at least fifteen different potential types of missions for the drones, according to Brig. Gen. Dale White, program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, reported National Defense.
The platform, which seems heavily influenced in its naming from science fiction, could also serve as a test bed for a future "R2D2" set of advanced algorithms—named for the "astromech" from the Star Wars film series. While not technology a "droid," R2D2 is actually the technology that could allow an aircraft to operate autonomously.
"Skyborg is going to be one of the easiest systems to put R2D2 in first because it's going to be a low-cost system," Roper said. "It's meant to take risks. It will be OK if R2D2 has some trouble learning to fly and crashes a few times."
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
This article first appeared in October 2020.
Image: U.S. Air Force photo