This summer, the US Air Force placed orders with four companies to develop prototypes for the Skyborg program. This is the Air Force's quest to provide relatively inexpensive autonomous, non-screwed fighter aircraft as robotic wingmen for human-piloted F-22 and F-35 fighters. Skyborg is one of three Vanguard initiatives – programs designed to expand the Air Force's capabilities with disruptive new technologies.
The US military has been talking about so-called "loyal wingman" drones for almost a decade. The Navy had its own carrier-based drone efforts which, after success in early tests, turned into a robotic tanker program. Most US combat drone efforts, however, have focused on providing slower, longer-flying propeller-propelled drones for the least sexy work in the air: surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeted air support. And the stars of that show, the General Atomics Predator and its bigger Reaper sibling, are flown from afar by human pilots who communicate with ground and air forces.
Enlarge /. The representation of a Skyborg drone by the US Air Force.
US Air Force
"Loyal Wingman" drones flew in formation with crew fighters under the control of the AI and under the orders of their human flight controllers. The Air Force describes the AI-controlled drones as "crushable" – not necessarily expendable, but far less expensive to lose to enemy fire than an F-22 or F-35. The drones would act as weapon-bearing extensions to the human-flown aircraft they operate on. Much of the early testing, including footage of scaled-down jet drones from last year, focused on software that would allow them to fly safely near crewed aircraft.
who is who
Boeing, General Atomics, Northrop Grumman and Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems were all selected for the Air Force's Skyborg prototyping, experimentation and autonomy development program, overseen by the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center and the Air Force Research Laboratory. All four competitors have developed subsonic jet drones in the past.
Kratos' efforts are based on working with AFRL on the company's XQ-58A Valkyrie, the first aircraft designed in the conditions of low cost, low maintenance, reusability and adaptability to missions normally intended for combat aircraft and built using commercial manufacturing techniques.
Northrop Grumman had early success with its prototype X-47 launch vehicles and has built other long-range jet-propelled drones, including the Global Hawk and the Navy's Triton patrol. And over a decade ago, General Atomics developed the Avenger, a turbofan-powered platform evolved from the MQ-9 Reaper, though the Air Force never bought it in bulk.
Boeing is building the Navy's carrier-based tanker drone and is already working on a “loyal wingman” drone for the Australian Air Force, the Airpower Teaming System, which will fly in formation with the Australian Super Hornet fighters and the F-35.
Potential opponents don't stand still either. China is developing its own "loyal wingman" – one that can essentially turn into a cruise missile. And the Russian Air Force has already flown their S-70 Hunter-B drone along with their new advanced Su-57 fighter jet – although the Su-57 itself had a difficult history.
Listing image by US Air Force