The U.S. Air Force says that it has conducted the first flight test of an initial version of the artificial intelligence-driven “computer brain” it is developing under the Skyborg program using a Kratos UTAP-22 Mako unmanned aircraft. Kratos, along with Boeing and General Atomics, are on contract to start delivering new drones soon to support this project. Skyborg is centered on crafting a system of systems that will be able to fly networked “loyal wingman” type drones, as well as fully autonomous unmanned combat air vehicles, or UCAVs.
The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio announced the successful completion of the flight test, which it said lasted approximately two hours and 10 minutes, on May 5, 2021. The flight had occurred on April 29, with personnel launching the UTAP-22 carrying the Skyborg Autonomy Core System (ACS) from Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. Tyndall has immediate access to extensive over-water ranges in the Gulf of Mexico and is already a regular launch point for ground-launched Kratos BQM-167A Skeeter target drones, from which the UTAP-22 is derived.
The Air Force has described this test as Milestone 1 within what is now calling the Autonomous Attritable Aircraft Experimentation (AAAx) campaign. Attritable refers to drones and other systems that are not, by definition, expendable, but are designed to be low-cost enough to be employed in environments where the risk of them being lost would preclude the use of more expensive and sensitive ‘exquisite’ platforms.
“We’re extremely excited for the successful flight of an early version of the ’brain‘ of the Skyborg system. It is the first step in a marathon of progressive growth for Skyborg technology,” Air Force Brigadier General Dale White, the service’s Program Executive Officer for Skyborg, as well as for Fighters and Advanced Aircraft, said in a statement. “These initial flights kickoff the experimentation campaign that will continue to mature the ACS and build trust in the system.”
“Through this operational experimentation campaign, AFRL is leaning forward to get early engagement with the warfighter to deliver a suite of full-mission autonomy on a relevant timeline,” Brigadier General Heather Pringle, the Skyborg Technology Executive Officer and head of AFRL, added in her own statement. “AFRL is proud to be developing this force multiplier for the U.S. Air Force with our partners at PEO Fighters and Advanced Aircraft and the 96th Test Wing.”
AFLCMC and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), working together, are managing the Skyborg program, which was publicly unveiled in 2019. The 96th Test Wing, which has been assigned the role of lead test unit for the Skyborg program, is based at Eglin Air Force Base, also in Florida.
The Air Force said the main goal of this flight test was to evaluate the Skyborg ACS’s ability to carry out various “foundational behaviors necessary to characterize safe system operation,” according to an official press release. “The ACS demonstrated basic aviation capabilities and responded to navigational commands, while reacting to geo-fences, adhering to aircraft flight envelopes, and demonstrating coordinated maneuvering. It was monitored from both airborne and ground command and control stations.”
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