Two new autonomous aircraft concepts that promise to redefine the Air Force’s unmanned fleet are moving forward.
The latest, Skyborg, is an autonomous drone prototyping program underway at the Air Force Research Laboratory. Researchers hope to get the aircraft—expected to be cheaper than other platforms and easily replaceable—combat-ready by the end of 2023.
Air Force Acquisition Executive Will Roper revealed the program, which launched in October, at a conference in Washington last month. Skyborg must be able to autonomously take off and land, fly in bad weather, and avoid other aircraft, terrain, and obstacles, the Air Force said.
Although the Air Force hasn’t decided what kind of aircraft Skyborg should be, it released an artist’s concept of an oblong, winged vehicle with three wheels last month.
The “modular, fighter-like aircraft” serves as a springboard for more complex artificial intelligence work, according to a March 15 request for information.
“Skyborg is a vessel for AI technologies that could range from rather simple algorithms to fly the aircraft and control them in airspace, to the introduction of more complicated levels of AI to accomplish certain tasks or subtasks of the mission,” Matt Duquette, an engineer in AFRL’s aerospace systems branch, said in a press release last month.
An experimentation campaign for autonomous airborne systems is in the works for fiscal 2019 and 2020, the RFI said. The Air Force did not offer more details about the campaign by press time, nor did it answer whether Skyborg is related to another AFRL endeavor launched last year that sought to develop an autonomous fighter jet by the end of 2019.
A similar program, Kratos’ XQ-58A Valkyrie, completed its first flight test March 5. The 30-foot-long, experimental “wingman” aircraft will fly five tests in six months to vet system functionality, aerodynamics, and launch and recovery systems, according to the Air Force.