Boeing unveils a new breed of ‘wingman’ drones that fly with piloted military jets

Boeing Airborne Teaming System
An artist’s conception shows drones in the Boeing Airpower Teaming System flying alongside an F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet. (Boeing Illustration)

Boeing is unveiling a new type of uncrewed aircraft that’s designed to fly military missions alongside piloted airplanes, known as the Boeing Airpower Teaming System.

The air platform is being developed for global defense customers by Boeing Austraila, and as such, represents Boeing’s biggest investment in an unmanned aircraft program outside the United States. Australian Defense Minister Christopher Pyne took the wraps off a full-scale mockup of the plane today at the Australian International Airshow at Avalon Airport in Geelong.

Australia’s government is teaming up with Boeing to produce a concept demonstrator called the “Loyal Wingman,” which should blaze the trail for production of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System.

“The Boeing Airpower Teaming System will provide a disruptive advantage for allied forces’ manned / unmanned missions,” Kristin Robertson, vice president and general manager of Boeing Autonomous Systems, said in a news release. “With its ability to reconfigure quickly and perform different types of missions in tandem with other aircraft, our newest addition to Boeing’s portfolio will truly be a force multiplier as it protects and projects air power.”

Boeing says the 38-foot-long craft will provide fighter-like performance, with the range to fly 2,000 nautical miles (2,300 statute miles). The aircraft will be equipped with sensor packages to support intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions as well as electronic warfare. And it will be able to use artificial intelligence to fly independently, or in support of piloted aircraft while maintaining safe distance between other aircraft.

Illustrations from Boeing show the drones flying in formation alongside an F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet, or near a Boeing 737 airborne early warning and control aircraft, which the Royal Australian Air Force calls the E-7A Wedgetail. Australia’s ABC quoted unnamed industry sources as saying the drones could eventually be used to deliver bombs.

Similar “loyal wingman” drone concepts are under development at Lockheed Martin and Kratos Defense and Security Solutions.

Marc Allen, president of Boeing International, said the Boeing Airpower Teaming System is “a historic endeavor” for the company, due to the nature of the international partnership.

“Not only is it developed outside the United States, it is also designed so that our global customers can integrate local content to meet their country-specific requirements,” he said.

First flight of the demonstrator is planned for 2020.

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