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US Air Force advances Skyborg AI drone program with prototype solicitation

Skyborg AI UCAV
A Skyborg conceptual design for a low cost attritable Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV). Artwork: AFRL

The US Air Force Research Laboratory’s office of strategic development planning and experimentation has kicked off the project to develop a prototype autonomous unmanned combat air vehicle as part of a program known as Skyborg.

On May 15, the service issued a solicitation for prototypes of the system that would leverage artificial intelligence to operate as part of a larger group of drones and in unison with manned platforms.

Skyborg is envisioned as a transferable suite of autonomous capabilities paired with teamed, autonomous, low-cost platforms to enable expeditionary operations that can generate massed combat power with minimal logistical footprints.

The program has been designated as an Air Force Vanguard program to rapidly deliver transformational capabilities to the Department of Defense by marrying technology from the Air Force Research Laboratory and industry with a transition partner from the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center. 

An early operational capability is envisioned for as early as 2023.

The solicitation comes after last year’s “capability request for information” to industry to conduct market research and concept of operations analysis to learn what is commercially available now as high technology readiness level capabilities which can meet the requirements and timeline of the Skyborg program.

The air force now plans to award multiple companies $400 million for this phase of work. The solicitation will end June 15, while eventual awards are expected to follow by July 8.

Skyborg officially stood up as an FY19 funded pathfinder program through SDPE in October 2018, according to Ben Tran, Skyborg Program Manager.

“There was a lot of analysis that determined what was put into the CRFI,” said Tran. “We’ve been given the overall objective to have an early operational capability prototype fielded by the end of calendar year 2023, so this is our first step in determining what the current state of the art is from a technology perspective and from a systems engineering perspective to provide that EOC capability in 2023.”

Low cost, attritable, unmanned air vehicles are one way to bring mass to the fight when it comes to addressing potential near-peer engagements in the future, according to Tran.

“We also know there is heavy investment by our near-peer adversaries in artificial intelligence and autonomy in general. We know that when you couple autonomy and AI with systems like low-cost attritables, that can increase capability significantly and be a force multiplier for our Air Force and so the 2023 goal line is our attempt at bringing something to bear in a relatively quick timeframe to show that we can bring that kind of capability to the fight.”

This builds on much of the AFRL foundational work with AI shown with programs such as Have Raider and the Auto Ground and Air Collision Avoidance systems, which prove that levels of autonomy in high performance aircraft are not only possible, but also practical.