The U.S. Air Force has tasked a handful of avionics competitors this month to compete on the new Skyborg drone technology that will use artificial intelligence to make battle decisions either as ‘wingmen’ or in a squadron of their own.
These companies will be tasked with integrating artificial intelligence (AI) technology into unmanned drone aircraft fighters that could either work in tandem with manned aircraft in a squadron or by themselves in their own formation.
This innovation has the potential to cut the cost of battle by saving the high cost of each manned aircraft and also the cost of pilot’s lives.
“I think it’s going to make being a pilot more exciting”
Human pilots won’t be phased out anytime soon, however.
Air Force acquisition executive Will Roper said: “It’s going to make them more important. We’re going to ask them to do even more, which is not just to fly a wicked fast, lethal plane. We’re going to ask them to fly that plane and then quarterback a team of planes with them.”
“I think it’s going to make being a pilot more exciting” Roper said.
Boeing, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, General Atomics,and Kratos Defense & Security are working on their own versions of artificial intelligence technology or AI-controlled drones.
Earlier this month, according to Defense News, Boeing rolled out its own loyal wingman drone, the Airpower Teaming System. The Royal Australian Air Force has committed to buy three of those systems for experimentation under its Loyal Wingman Advanced Development Program.
Last year, Roper told Defense News that the service was exploring the possibility of teaming Skyborg both with the Lockheed Martin F-35 and the Boeing F-15EX aircraft. The ability to team manned fighter jets with smart, autonomous drones could “open up the door for an entirely different way to do aerial combat,” he said in May 2019.
Roper said pairing fighters with drones could “open up the door for an entirely different way to do aerial combat.” For example, take a typical four-aircraft formation and replace it with an F-15EX and three Valkyries.
Kratos Defense and Security Solutions has already been working with the Air Force on its XQ-58A Valkyrie drone, which logged its fourth successful flight test in January as part of the Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology program.
According to Air Force Magazine, Valkyrie is a joint venture between the Air Force Research Laboratory and Kratos to develop comparatively cheaper drones that can assist more advanced aircraft and are easily replaceable if lost.
If a relatively low-cost aircraft such as Valkyrie were equipped with AI technology, it could be placed into a heavily congested battle zone in order to remove danger to an actual pilot while taking out a target efficiently, possibly even more so than a human pilot could do.
Aircraft should “generate massed combat power with minimal logistical footprints,” with cost per unit and the price of operating and maintaining the air vehicles a “small fraction” for that of the Air Force’s existing fighter inventory, according to the solicitation bid proposal.
General Atomics and Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works each plan to offer their own aircraft proposals, according to Air Force Magazine.
According to Defense News, the Air Force budget for 2021 for the three “vanguard programs,” which includes the Skyborg effort, is $157.6 million. There is an additional $25 million for Skyborg on its unfunded priorities list to be used toward integrating artificial intelligence technology.
With this new technology the Air Force can save money and potentially the lives of its own pilots which has a higher cost when it comes to the price of war.