At the start of World War II, it quickly became clear that fighter pilots could no longer survive using “lone wolf” tactics. The two-plane “element” was born, with the leader doing the hunting and most of the shooting, and a wingman following close behind with his head on a swivel, watching for ambushing enemy aircraft. There was often a bond that formed between the two pilots, and they’d often switch roles in the midst of a dogfight. This strategy has continued to this day, with wingmen sometimes extending their support to the barroom.
Now, there is a new “virtual” twist on this relationship.
Boeing’s “Loyal Wingman” drone program reached a milestone this week as Australia signed a $115 million contract to bring its order to six aircraft. The Australian-built aircraft made its first flight in southern Australia on February 27. In the U.S., Loyal Wingman technology—also known as Boeing’s Airpower Teaming System (ATS)—will constitute Boeing’s entry in the U.S. Air Force’s “Skyborg” program, an effort to create low-cost, artificially intelligent drones that will fly alongside manned fighters, supporting them in combat. The Air Force expects to receive its first aircraft from Boeing in May.
The drones will support manned aircraft with sensors to identify ground targets and defend against enemy aircraft and ground-based missile defenses. What remains to be determined is the level of autonomous control and how much data can be efficiently transferred between the manned and unmanned aircraft.
Shane Arnott, Boeing’s ATS program director, said, “When you’re teaming with, say, a [Boeing F/A-18] Super Hornet, they don’t have the luxury during combat maneuvers or operations to be remotely piloting another aircraft.” The ATS is classed as semi-autonomous, meaning it can maintain control through artificial intelligence, but also relies on preplanned and uploaded mission profiles.
“We don’t have all the answers yet,” Arnott said. “We have a lot of understanding through our surrogate simulator and surrogate testing that we’re doing, but we will prove that out.”
The ATS is 38 feet in length with mission-specific sensors and other payloads installed in its removeable nose cone.