The Rise of Skyborg: Air Force Betting on New Robotic Wingman

By Jon Harper
Boeing’s Airpower Teaming System concept

Boeing illustration

The next year will be pivotal for the Air Force’s effort to acquire a new class of autonomous drones, as industry teams compete for a chance to build a fleet of robotic wingmen that will soon undergo operational experimentation.

The “Skyborg” program is one of the service’s top science-and-technology priorities under the “Vanguard” initiative to deliver game-changing capabilities to its warfighters.

The aim is to acquire relatively inexpensive, attritable unmanned aircraft that can leverage artificial intelligence and accompany manned fighter jets into battle.

“I expect that we will do sorties where a set number are expected to fly with the manned systems, and we’ll have crazy new [concepts of operation] for how they’ll be used,” Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper said during an online event hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

The platforms might even be called upon to conduct kamikaze missions.

“I expect that the [human] pilots … will decide, does the Skyborg return and land with them and go to fight another day, or is it the end of its life and it’s going to go on a one-way mission?” Roper said.

A suicide mission might be appropriate if there’s an opportunity to hit a “lucrative target” that would justify the cost of losing the drone, he explained. “That’s what I love about them — their versatility and the fact that we can take risks with them” that the military wouldn’t be willing to take with human pilots.

“Even though we call Skyborg ‘attritable aircraft,’ I think we’ll think of them more like reusable weapons,” he added. “I think we’ll procure them like that ... and just buy them at kind of a steady rate.”

The systems could not only fly alongside fighter jets, but also serve as robotic wingmen for other types of aircraft such as bombers and tankers. They would bring a variety of capabilities to the battlefield, serving as sensors, jammers or shooters, he noted.

Brig. Gen. Dale White, program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, said the military envisions about 15 different potential mission sets for the drones.

Additionally, the platforms could serve as a test bed for a future “R2D2” set of advanced algorithms named after the handy robot in the Star Wars film franchise. The technology is expected to be able to pilot aircraft autonomously.

“Skyborg is going to be one of the easiest systems to put R2D2 in first because it’s going to be a low-cost system,” Roper said. “It’s meant to take risks. It will be OK if R2D2 has some trouble learning to fly and crashes a few times.”

The Skyborg program, which is laying the groundwork for a new family of UAS that can make decisions at machine speeds, is now moving into a new phase. The Air Force announced in late July that it had awarded indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contracts to Boeing, General Atomics, Northrop Grumman and Kratos Defense, that will enable the four companies to compete for up to $400 million worth of delivery orders for prototypes.

The contractors were downselected after a competition with 18 participants. However, no funds were obligated at the time of the award; they will come with each individual order.

Boeing is offering a variant of its Airpower Teaming System, a robotic wingman that was developed in Australia.

“This is another step in our effort to integrate and advance our autonomous technologies and prototyping experience from decades of successful research and development in this area,” a company spokesperson said in an email. “ATS is designed for operational requirements that we see customers needing around the world. We continue to see interest from the Department of Defense in this capability, and we’re engaged with the U.S. industrial base on opportunities to missionize the aircraft for U.S. needs.”

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, maker of the remotely operated MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles that gained fame during the post-9/11 wars, declined to discuss specifics about its prototypes.

“Our design will leverage open architecture, modularity and interoperability to maximize the integration of the Skyborg technology and any associated payloads,” a company spokesperson said in a statement. “To fast track this game-changing capability, GA-ASI will leverage our proven combat operational experience in UAS operations and digital engineering techniques to deliver an autonomous UAV prototype.”

Development of unmanned aircraft is benefiting increasingly from the enhancements being made in machine learning and artificial intelligence, the spokesperson noted.

“Their capacity to augment human operations and decision-making will only grow and become even more capable,” the spokesperson said. “As such, the interaction between commercial innovation and defense integration must get closer to ensure autonomous unmanned aircraft can be operationally deployed with the right technologies to stay ahead of adversaries. This is why we believe in a continuous capability development and delivery concept aimed at rapid prototyping to get new capabilities out to operating forces sooner.”

Rapidly transitioning prototypes for downrange operational evaluations with other manned and unmanned assets will help validate the Skyborg mission and provide valuable data toward the establishment of future unmanned aircraft requirements, the spokesperson added.

Northrop Grumman also was tight-lipped about its prototypes, but described its approach to the program.

“Our expertise in advanced autonomous mission management and payloads, unmanned aerial system design and manufacturing, and alignment of operational analysis to experimentation will prove beneficial in the subsequent competitions to develop future attritable air vehicles that will help the U.S. Air Force connect the joint force,” Scott Winship, the company’s sector vice president for advanced programs, said in an email.

“At this stage we cannot talk specifics about our prototypes,” he said. “However, a key strength to our offering is adaptation of our service-based, autonomous mission management system, Distributed Autonomy/Responsive Control, to the government’s open architecture System Design Agent, providing rapid technology insertion.”

The distributed autonomy/responsive control capability will be critical to multi-aircraft flight, payload and sensor management developed and integrated under the Skyborg program, he said.

Northrop Grumman has established relationships with many defense and commercial companies to provide innovation in key areas such as AI, mission subsystems and innovative manufacturing technologies, he noted.

Kratos Defense has already turned heads with its XQ-58A “Valkyrie” experimental drone developed for a separate Air Force effort, the Low-Cost Attritable Strike Demonstrator program, in which it has conducted several successful test flights.

“Kratos has been and remains committed to advancing affordable unmanned technologies, and we are proud to be a Skyborg prime contractor, helping enable the DoD to significantly increase mass and effect at dramatically reduced cost compared to traditional aircraft programs,” Steve Fendley, president of Kratos’ unmanned systems division, said in a press release.

Through a public relations firm, the company declined to say whether it will offer the Valkyrie prototype for Skyborg.

“Kratos has a number of systems flying today and will put forth the best system to meet the specs of the delivery orders, which we do not have yet,” the company said.

The contractor is viewed by some observers as the leader in this type of technology, although it faces stiff competition.

“Kratos has had the lead in this program/concept but it now has three very competent competitors that have strong pedigrees in unmanned/autonomous systems, solid tech and deep pockets,” Roman Schweizer, managing director for aerospace and defense with the Cowen Washington Research Group, wrote in a newsletter. “We still believe Kratos will win a contract to develop and deliver a capability for the USAF, but we also think the Skyborg idea will have a wider application and mission set.”

Schweizer said it was no shock that Kratos, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics survived the downselect, but it was surprising that military aerospace giant Lockheed Martin didn’t make it to the next round.

There has been speculation in investor circles that Lockheed might try to acquire Kratos to strengthen its hand in the unmanned systems market.

“With Lockheed now on the outside looking in, an acquisition or partnership with Kratos would make sense for more reasons than just Skyborg,” Schweizer said.

Lockheed declined to comment about a potential acquisition, but said its secretive Skunk Works division is still interested in the Air Force’s UAS projects.

“Lockheed Martin Skunk Works is committed to providing future unmanned aerial system solutions that support a variety of missions required for the future battlespace,” a company spokesperson said in an email. “We look forward to continued discussions with the U.S. Air Force to determine how we can best support the multi-phased Skyborg program.”

White, from the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, noted that vendors who lost out in the recent downselect will still have opportunities to participate.

“We are actively looking at how we use those vendors to increase the vendor pool over time because there’s still a significant amount of work to be done getting to production and an operational vehicle,” he said during a teleconference with reporters.

Brig. Gen. Heather Pringle, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory, noted that the systems will have government-referenced open architectures that allow different organizations to add technology. The program will leverage work that AFRL has done on autonomy, and can also draw on the lab’s expertise in other areas such as propulsion and sensors.

“As the warfighter develops new ideas that would make it more operationally relevant, we’ll be able to pull those pieces in,” she said.

In May, Leidos was tapped to be the system design agent and to integrate the various mission systems, landing a $29 million Air Force contract. Schweizer called it a “key win” for the company.

During an earnings call, Leidos Chairman and CEO Roger Krone said of the contractor’s participation in the program: “It helps us in many areas with autonomy, with systems engineering. It advances … our qualifications.”

Meanwhile, the Air Force is deciding how to move forward with the four drone makers that won the recent downselect.

“Basically we’ll look at the four options, what the pricing is, and so forth. There will be a lot that goes into deciding … how many different vehicles we choose, how many we buy from each vendor,” White said. “There are a lot of variables that are unknown in terms of what we get back from industry on that.”

The service wants to buy as many different types of prototypes in the highest quantities it can afford with the pool of money that has been allotted, he added.

Officials planned to place delivery orders for the initial tranche by the end of October and conduct operational experimentation with the prototypes in 2021 at sites across the United States.

The results of next year’s operational experiments will help shape decisions about production and moving to a program of record.

“We believe we’re going to be in a great position probably by the end of next year to be able to really decide which way we want to go with this,” White said.

Service officials have previously said they hope to have systems in the fleet by 2023.

Steven Zaloga, a global UAV market expert with the Teal Group, noted that the Air Force is “really hot” on the idea of loyal wingmen right now. These types of systems might be the wave of the future, not the remotely piloted drones that took center stage during the Global War on Terrorism.

“The growth, as far as armed UAVs go, may be more in that direction — not these small, propeller-driven, relatively slow, relatively vulnerable airframes, but rather airframes that are closer to manned aircraft like fighter aircraft and strike aircraft,” he said.

A large number of vendors may line up to sell these types of systems. While major Air Force programs often have only a few prime contractors vying for awards, the Air Force received a whopping 18 bids for Skyborg.

“One of our core expectations about DoD’s new push into air … unmanned robotics is that it will be an extremely competitive market,” Schweizer said.

Topics: Robotics and Autonomous Systems

Comments (3)

Re: Air Force Betting on New Robotic Wingman

Well, the AF pretty much got rid of Navigators and Flight Engineers in recent years. Logically, pilots are next. Drones don't whine about depl0yments, additional duties, or demand bonuses.

JD Rocker at 10:24 PM
Re: Air Force Betting on New Robotic Wingman

Good Style in robotic creation to fight and defeat the enemy and defeat terrorists in there own battle in Technology welfare against are United States drone who tries to defeat America in the game of war.

Manny at 5:24 AM
Re: Air Force Betting on New Robotic Wingman

Who wants a hovercar

Patrick Roberto at 3:57 PM
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