The Air Force's AI-Powered 'Skyborg' Drones Could Fly as Early as 2023

The Air Force Wants AI-Powered Drone Jets by 2023Air Force Research Laboratory artwork
  • The Air Force is soliciting the aerospace industry to provide flyable “Skyborg” drones by 2023.

  • The drones will be powered by artificial intelligence, capable of taking off, landing, and performing missions on their own.

  • Skyborg will not only free manned pilots from dangerous and dull missions but allow the Air Force to add legions of new, unpiloted, cheap planes.

The U.S. Air Force is finally pushing into the world of robot combat drones, vowing to fly the first of its “Skyborg” drones by 2023. The service envisions Skyborg as a merging of artificial intelligence with jet-powered drones. The result will be drones capable of flying alongside fighter jets, carrying out dangerous missions. Skyborg drones will be much cheaper than piloted aircraft, allowing the Air Force to grow its fleet at a lower cost.

The Air Force, according to Defense News, will award a total of $400 million to one or more companies to develop different types of Skyborg drones. The drones will be “attritable”, meaning they will be designed to fly multiple flights, but the Air Force won’t sweat it if it loses one. The drones are expected to fly in 2023.

Skyborg was originally conceived as a flying artificial intelligence. Skyborg was meant to operate either as part of a piloted fighter, providing an R2-D2-type assistant to a human pilot, or as an AI flying an autonomous drone on its own. Under its current iteration, the Skyborg AI will fly a high performance, fighter-like drone.

Skyborg drones are now envisioned as combat aerial vehicles capable of carrying out dangerous missions, such as hunting down or jamming enemy air defense networks, carrying out reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines, or striking targets in heavily defended airspace. A Skyborg drone could also carry air-to-air missiles for stealthy warbirds like the F-22 Raptor or F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, fighters constrained in the number of missiles they can carry in stealth mode.

U.S. Air Force/Kratos Defense XQ-58A Valkyrie drone.© Air Force/Senior Airman Joshua Hoskins

Air Force Magazine reports the service wants its Skyborg drones to “autonomously avoid other aircraft, terrain, obstacles, and hazardous weather, and take off and land on its own”. That opens up a whole raft of other, less dangerous missions including refueling other planes, acting as a flying communications node, collecting intelligence on enemy forces, and even search and rescue. Designed to handle high-intensity conflict, Skyborg should be able of taking on other, more mundane tasks with ease.

Four companies are likely participants in the Skyborg program. Kratos Defense is already working with the Air Force in the XQ-58A Valkyrie drone, while Boeing Australia’s Loyal Wingman drone is another candidate. Defense News also reports General Atomics and Lockheed Martin are also likely participants, though exactly what drones they would offer up is not clear.

Revolutionary is a word tossed around too much these days but the Skyborg concept, fully realized, could spark a revolution. The U.S. Air Force is steadily growing smaller, buying fewer and fewer highly expensive warplanes that cost more and more to operate. It also faces a dwindling number of platform choices—the only fighter jets the service is buying are the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter and F-15EX Advanced Eagle, both of which are in the $90 million plus range.

A Skyborg fighter, built to last a limited number of missions and lacking a pilot, will cost considerably less than the current alternatives, allowing the service to grow its fleet of deployable aircraft without spending more money.

Source: Defense News

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