Home Air US Air Force’s Skyborg “loyal wingman” program hits first flight milestone

US Air Force’s Skyborg “loyal wingman” program hits first flight milestone

Kratos UTAP-22 UAV launches with a Skyborg manned-unmanned teaming core system
The Skyborg autonomy core system launches aboard a Kratos UTAP-22 tactical unmanned vehicle at Tyndall AFB, Florida on April 29. Photo: US Air Force

The US Air Force program that aims to leverage manned-unmanned technology to allow unmanned aerial systems to act as “loyal wingmen” to manned fighters has hit the first flight milestone.

The air force’s Skyborg team completed a two-hours and ten minute flight test of the Skyborg autonomy core system (ACS) aboard a Kratos UTAP-22 tactical unmanned vehicle at Tyndall AFB, Florida, on April 29.

The first flight milestone comes after the air force selected Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, and Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems in December 2020 to deliver missionized prototypes of Skyborg autonomous unmanned combat air vehicles by May 2021.

Milestone 1 is the first step in testing the ACS, and begins a sequence of experimentation events planned over the next several months.

Termed Milestone 1 of the autonomous attritable aircraft experimentation (AAAx) campaign, the ACS performed a series of foundational behaviors necessary to characterize safe system operation.

According to the service, the ACS demonstrated basic aviation capabilities and responded to navigational commands, while reacting to geo-fences, adhering to aircraft flight envelopes, and demonstrating coordinated maneuvering. It was monitored from both airborne and ground command and control stations.

Milestone 1 was the first time an active autonomy capability was demonstrated on an air force test range, and is a first step to integrating these aircraft into a complex operational environment.

Follow on events will demonstrate direct manned-unmanned teaming between manned aircraft and multiple ACS-controlled unmanned aircraft.

Photo: US Air Force

The Skyborg Vanguard team leading the effort is a relationship that pairs Brig. Gen. Dale White, Program Executive Officer for Fighters and Advanced Aircraft as the Skyborg PEO, and Brig. Gen. Heather Pringle, Commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory as the Skyborg Technology Executive Officer (TEO). The 96th Test Wing, under the leadership of Brig. Gen. Scott Cain, serves as the executing agent for these test missions.

“We’re extremely excited for the successful flight of an early version of the ’brain‘ of the Skyborg system. It is the first step in a marathon of progressive growth for Skyborg technology,” said White. “These initial flights kickoff the experimentation campaign that will continue to mature the ACS and build trust in the system.”

“Through this operational experimentation campaign, AFRL is leaning forward to get early engagement with the warfighter to deliver a suite of full-mission autonomy on a relevant timeline,” said Pringle. “AFRL is proud to be developing this force multiplier for the U.S. Air Force with our partners at PEO Fighters and Advanced Aircraft and the 96th Test Wing.”

The 96th Test Wing is well-positioned to integrate and test emerging technologies like autonomy on various platforms (aircraft and weapons) and has provided critical infrastructure support and test expertise to Skyborg.

“As we have throughout our history, the Test enterprise is adapting our people and capabilities to support this rapidly maturing technology, and the execution of this flight test is a great milestone for our closely integrated development and acquisition team. Safely executing this test and providing the knowledge needed to advance the technology is at the heart of what we do. And as always, we’re highly motivated to help bring war-winning technology to the next fight,” said Cain.

The aim of the Skyborg Vanguard program is to integrate full-mission autonomy with low-cost, attritable unmanned air vehicle technology to enable manned-unmanned teaming. Skyborg will provide the foundation on which the Air Force can build an airborne autonomous ‘best of breed’ system of systems that adapts, orients, and decides at machine speed for a wide variety of increasingly complex mission sets.