The Air Force’s AI Fleet of the Future

May 8, 2020

Unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), also known as drones, have been used in military operations for decades. Through remote control, they have been launched in intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions and electronic warfare. Work is underway to apply artificial intelligence (AI) to this technology for eventual full autonomy.

Semiautonomous Aircraft Release

This week, Boeing Australia presented a prototype of their unmanned Loyal Wingman aircraft to the country’s Air Force. The drone uses AI to fly independently or in support of manned aircraft. The drone is semiautonomous, meaning its maneuvers do not need to be remote controlled. The Loyal Wingman is expected to fly for the first time later this year. The prototype marks the foundation of Boeing’s Airpower Teaming System, an in-development project for multiplying global defense forces with unmanned aircraft.

US Autonomous Aircraft Project

The US is developing a fully autonomous AI-powered aircraft, under a project called Skyborg, with a 2023 prototype launch goal. The drone would be able to take off and land independently, self-navigate in bad weather and avoid other aircraft and obstacles. The flight architecture would allow for modular upgrades and mission adaptability. Like the Loyal Wingman, the Skyborg aircraft is meant to operate alongside and support manned warfighters.

The Air Force Research Lab partnered with Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems and has been recently testing the XQ-58A Valkyrie – a high-subsonic unmanned aircraft designed for surveillance, reconnaissance and long-range combat. The Skyborg program is currently exploring the idea of pairing the Valkyrie with F-35 and F-15EX fighter jets as wingmen drones. The Valkyrie will need to be outfitted with new sensors, redesigned for modularity and networked to the fighter jets. The F-35 will need new programming, and the F-15EX has funding issues to overcome. But the payoff could be a team of wingmen drones to one manned fighter jet versus the costly expense of a team of many manned fighter jets.

Drone Swarms

The UK Royal Air Force is set to launch a squadron of swarming drones later this year. The drones will network with each other to confuse enemy air defenses. A swarm of drones provides too many targets for anti-air infrastructure to prioritize. And the swarm’s reaction time is too fast for a coordinated enemy attack. The swarm could also act as multiple decoys to the F-35 fighter jet, to which the drones are currently set to be paired.

Artificially Intelligent Munitions

Due for demonstrations later this year, the US Air Force is developing networking technology for bombs, missiles and decoy launches. Previously, a project known as Grey Wolf was in the works to develop new swarming cruise missiles. That project was canceled and redirected to networking existing munitions, now known as project Golden Horde.

Once fired, munitions would act collaboratively. If a missile destroys a target, data is sent to the remaining munitions which can then assess additional targets and send recommended actions to human controllers to approve. This would reduce wasted munitions and improve efficiency for efforts to outwit missile strikes.

Last year, the US Air Force released an artificial intelligence strategy, highlighting the importance of AI for 21st century missions. Clearly, AI is the future technology of warfare and defense.