The U.S. Air Force just took a major step toward a future crowded with AI-powered warplanes.
Late last month, the Air Force’s new Skyborg Autonomy Core System (ACS) flew a pilotless drone over Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, proving the AI could adhere to basic flight commands. The system will eventually lead to high-speed drones, powered by Skyborg, equipped with sensors, weapons, and other payloads to accomplish lonely—and dangerous—jobs that manned fighters used to carry out.
On April 29, the Kratos UTAP-22 drone launched from the ground at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, with an expendable rocket booster. Once airborne, the drone’s turbojet engine took over, powering the drone for the next 2 hours and 10 minutes. The Air Force reports:
“The ACS performed a series of foundational behaviors necessary to characterize safe system operation. 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.”
The Air Force developed the Skyborg to come in two flavors: an R2-D2-style AI that rode in a crewed fighter jet, providing the pilot with an assistant, and an AI capable of flying an uncrewed, “semi attritable” jet aircraft. (That means the Air Force knows a lot of them will crash or be shot down, and that’s okay.) This concept, known as Loyal Wingman, could see a single piloted jet team up with one or more pilotless jets to carry out a mission.
A Loyal Wingman could, for example, fly ahead of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, scouting the route ahead for enemy radars and launching anti-radar missiles at threatening detectors. It could detect enemy aircraft and relay targeting data to crewed fighters, allowing a human-flown fighter to operate with its radar turned off. A single F-35 could lead a major air strike, with Loyal Wingmen drones carrying extra bombs and missiles to finish off a tough ground target.
Skyborg will have several advantages. For starters, it will mean increased pilot survivability, as drones take on dangerous tasks. The system will also allow the Air Force to boost the size of its aircraft fleet, as a single uncrewed drone will cost just a fraction of a modern, piloted fighter. Lastly, more aircraft means more available aircraft, allowing the Air Force to conclude operations and campaigns earlier.
The Air Force plans to have Skyborg-powered aircraft ready for regular operations sometime around 2023.
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