US Air Force adds vendors to list of companies that could make autonomous Skyborg drone

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has added nine vendors to the list of companies that will compete to build the service’s autonomous Skyborg drone wingman.

On Sept. 28, the service awarded each firm an indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract worth up to $400 million. The nine companies were AeroVironment Inc., Autodyne LLC, BAE System Controls Inc., Blue Force Technologies Inc., Fregata Systems Inc., Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, NextGen Aeronautics Inc., Sierra Technical Services, and Wichita State University.

Those organizations join Northrop Grumman, Boeing, General Atomics and Kratos, which won the first round of contracts in July.

No money has been allotted to vendors so far. Instead, the 13 companies on contract will compete against each other for future delivery orders.

“This second phase of awards establishes a diverse and competitive vendor pool by adding several nontraditional and traditional contractors we saw as important additions to the effort,” said Brig. Gen. Dale White, the program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft, whose team manages the Skyborg program with the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Skyborg is one of the lab’s top three science and technology efforts. The project is meant to produce a family of uncrewed aerial systems that can move into contested spaces and conduct aerial missions that might be too dangerous for human pilots to perform.

Under the Skyborg program, the Air Force hopes to build a low-cost, attritable drone that can be reused but — if destroyed in combat — is cheap enough to be written off without incurring a large material loss. Key to the program is the development of artificial intelligence that will allow the aircraft to operate autonomously and potentially learn from prior training missions.

Currently, the Skyborg program is focused on developing the technologies necessary for the “Autonomous Core System,” the service said

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