WASHINGTON – The Royal Australian Air Force signed a $ 115 million deal Tuesday to purchase three additional Loyal Wingman autonomous drones from Boeing. Just a few days after the first flight of the first system, the total order was increased to six aircraft.
After a series of ground tests to validate its navigation and pilot control systems, the first Loyal Wingman – which Boeing also referred to as the Airpower Teaming System – flew from the Woomera Range Complex in South Australia on February 27, the company said on Monday.
During the flight, the aircraft followed a pre-planned route in which the vehicle flew at different speeds and altitudes. The drone was monitored on site by a Boeing test pilot.
“Most of human interaction takes place in mission planning,” said Shane Arnott, Boeing’s ATS program director. “The test pilot was always up to date. He gave orders at every stage, if you will – steer, take off, back … it’s almost that simple. “
Eventually, the Loyal Wingman will be able to fly manned fighter jets autonomously and possibly even use artificial intelligence to respond to new information on the battlefield. For this first flight, however, testing the drone’s AI capabilities isn’t a high priority, Arnott said.
In a statement, RAAF Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts, Australia’s head of the Air Force, described the first flight as a significant step forward for the program.
“The Loyal Wingman project pioneered the integration of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence to create intelligent human-machine teams,” she said. “Through this project, we are learning how to incorporate these new skills to complement and expand aerial combat and other missions.”
The Loyal Wingman aircraft is 38 feet long and has a wingspan of 24 feet. The detachable nose can be equipped with mission-specific sensors and other payloads. It can fly within a range of more than 2,000 nautical miles.
According to Boeing, the ATS is “the first military fighter to have been developed, designed and manufactured in Australia for more than 50 years”. More than 35 Australian companies, including BAE Systems Australia, RUAG Australia, AME Systems and Ferra Engineering, are involved in the production of the aircraft.
Boeing introduced the first ATS system in May 2020 and more aircraft are in development. Arnott declined to discuss future tests of the system or when the six systems would be delivered to the RAAF.
Soon, Australia will no longer be the only air force operating the system. The aircraft will also serve as the basis for Boeing’s entry into the Skyborg program for the U.S. Air Force, said Jerad Hayes, Boeing’s senior director of autonomous aviation and technology.
“We share a common core across all programs,” said Hayes. What is different, he added, will be the specific mission equipment – items like communication equipment and sensors.
Boeing has several payloads under development for various customers, said Arnott, who refused to provide further details.
In December, the US Air Force placed orders with Boeing, General Atomics and Kratos to manufacture aircraft for the Skyborg program, which aims to create an inexpensive, artificially intelligent, autonomous drone that can perform missions in competitive environments in addition to combat aircraft.
At that point, Boeing received $ 25.7 million over a two-year period. The Air Force has stated that the first prototypes will be received by the providers for first flight attempts from July at the latest in May.
Hayes declined to say whether the plane would be delivered by May, but said that “the plane will be available in time to support the Skyborg program milestone events.”