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Australia’s Loyal Wingman UAS prototype flies for the first time

Loyal Wingman Airpower Teaming System first flight
Photo: Boeing Australia

The Royal Australian Air Force’s Loyal Wingman unmanned aerial system (UAS) that will use artificial intelligence to team with other manned and unmanned platforms has flown for the first time.

Boeing Australia, the developer and builder of the first military aircraft to be designed and manufactured in Australia in more than 50 years, said the UAS flew under the supervision of a Boeing test pilot monitoring the aircraft from a ground control station at the Woomera Range Complex.

“The Loyal Wingman’s first flight is a major step in this long-term, significant project for the Air Force and Boeing Australia, and we’re thrilled to be a part of the successful test,” said Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts, RAAF Head of Air Force Capability. “The Loyal Wingman project is a pathfinder for the integration of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence to create smart human-machine teams.”

On the same day of the first flight milestone, Australia announced it would invest a further A$115 million in the program for the purchase of three additional aircraft to help develop teaming tactics with crewed platforms.

“Through this project we are learning how to integrate these new capabilities to complement and extend air combat and other missions,” she said.

Following a series of taxi tests validating ground handling, navigation and control, and pilot interface, the aircraft completed a takeoff under its own power before flying a pre-determined route at different speeds and altitudes to verify flight functionality and demonstrate the performance of the Airpower Teaming System design.

This first Loyal Wingman aircraft is serving as the foundation for the Boeing Airpower Teaming System being developed for various global defense customers. The aircraft will fly alongside other platforms, using artificial intelligence to team with existing manned and unmanned assets to complement mission capabilities.

The aircraft is envisaged as being able to undertake a wide range of missions including ISR, but will also be used to shield manned assets such as the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters and Boeing E-7A Wedgetail early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft.

With a range of over 3,700km, the aircraft will be used as a force-multiplier, helping to project power forward while keeping manned capabilities out of harm’s way.

Additional Loyal Wingman aircraft are currently under development, with plans for teaming flights scheduled for later this year.

Australia is not the only country developing this capability. The US Air Force has two similar programs underway, the Skyborg and the Valkyrie, while the UK kicked off its own Loyal Wingman program earlier this year.