Skyborg: U.S. Air Force Wants a Fleet of Drones as Robotic Wingmen

The U.S. Air Force is getting serious about working with autonomous aircraft and aims to acquire an entire fleet of drones to act as robotic wingmen under its “Skyborg” program, National Defense Magazine reports.

As autonomous aircraft get more sophisticated, they could provide invaluable support to crewed fighter jets or bombers by escorting them into dangerous territories. The Air Force has said it is looking to purchase AI-powered craft to begin testing out their capabilities alongside crewed fighter jets.

“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,” Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology, and logistics, said during an online event, as quoted in National Defense Magazine.

Another way that autonomous aircraft could be used is in missions that are too dangerous for human pilots, being sent on one-way suicide runs. “I expect that the [human] pilots … will decide, ‘does the Skyborg return and land with them and go to fight another day, or is it the end of its life and it’s going to go on a one-way mission?’” Roper added. “That’s what I love about them — their versatility and the fact that we can take risks with them.”

Illustration of the ATS F/A-18, part of Boeing's Airpower Teaming System
Illustration of the ATS F/A-18, part of Boeing’s Airpower Teaming System Boeing

Boeing is in the process of developing such technology as part of its Airpower Teaming System (ATS), a set of AI-powered, uncrewed aircraft which work cooperatively as a team.

The company recently delivered the first uncrewed “Loyal Wingman” aircraft to the Royal Australian Air Force, which will be the first of three prototypes working in the Australian defense system. The ATS will be able to fly independently using artificial intelligence, or support crewed aircraft by flying alongside them at a safe distance. And the planes can carry a variety of sensors that could be used for surveillance and reconnaissance or as a tactical early warning system.

Boeing is offering a variant of this plane to the Air Force, and is competing to deliver prototypes worth up to $400 million along with General Atomics, Northrop Grumman, and Kratos Defense.

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