Boeing, General Atomics and Kratos were chosen by the Air Force’s Skyborg program to create drone prototypes for the air vehicle portion to carry the AI computer brain. The timing for building the first test vehicles of the autonomous combat drone is a mere five months.
The Air Force’s Skyborg program is planning on building several low-cost, “attritable” drones — drones that can be reused, which are inexpensive enough that losses in combat can be financially and operationally tolerated. The project hopes to produce a “family of uncrewed aerial systems that can move into contested spaces and conduct aerial missions that might be too dangerous for human pilots to perform.”*
The following three companies are under contract for a two-year period of performance:
• Boeing, which received $25.7 million.
• General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, which received $14.3 million.
• Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems Inc., which received $37.8 million.*
According to a press release, military officials expect the first prototypes to be delivered by May, 2021, for the initial flight tests, and then proceed with flight experiments beginning in July, 2021. In this latter date (July 2021) each drone’s ability to team with manned aircraft will be tested.
Brigadier General Dale White, the head of the Air Force’s program executive office for fighters and advanced aircraft, manages the program alongside the Air Force Research Laboratory. He explained:
“This award is a major step forward for our game-changing Skyborg capability — this award supporting our operational experimentation is truly where concepts become realities.”*
One of the key differences between the Skyborg program and the combat drone programs previously, is the development of artificial intelligence that will enable drones to operate autonomously, which will also, hopefully, learn from previous training missions.
The system is being designed by Leidos, which uses input from the Air Force and other Skyborg vendors.
The program has focused on developing the technologies necessary for the Autonomous Core System, which is the hardware and software that will enable the Skyborg drone to operate semi-independently from a human operator. This will make it possible for the operator to issue commands, but not have to physically fly the system. After prototypes are delivered, the Air Force will outfit them with the autonomy module — the “Autonomous Core System.”
The three prototype manufacturers — Boeing, General Atomics and Kratos — are also required to prove that their aircraft is capable of incorporating payloads and mission systems, which are being supplied by the other 10 companies on contract, to potentially supply capabilities for the Skyborg program.
In July and September, the Air Force awarded delivery and quantity contracts worth as much as $400 million. The purpose was to establish a group of 13 vendors that will compete in offering Skyborg hardware and software, such as the drones themselves, as well as sensors, weapons, and algorithms.
In addition to the three companies chosen to build air vehicle prototypes, the other 10 vendors’ companies include: AeroVironment Inc., Autonodyne LLC, BAE System Controls Inc., Blue Force Technologies Inc., Fregata Systems Inc., Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, NextGen Aeronautics Inc., Northrop Grumman, Sierra Technical Services, and Wichita State University.
There will be competition among these companies throughout the entire period, which will consist of multiple phases, intended to continue evaluation of the performance of the vendors.
Skyborg’s program of seeking to infuse artificial intelligence-driven autonomy into modular unmanned air combat vehicles, is an exciting venture which promises to have a significant impact on the future of aerial combat.