In the closing days of September 2020, the Skyborg Vanguard program completed its second phase of awards and now includes 13 companies competing for a design of the loyal wingman – a drone that will accompany U.S. fighter jets into battle.
The program aims at the development of aircraft that combine two main features: attritable design and AI teaming. They have to be cheap and easy to produce in large numbers, giving the Air Force a capability to procure large numbers of them instead of one expensive manned fighter jet. Also, they are supposed to be controlled by Artificial Intelligence (AI), working as a team with other airplanes, and executing commands issued by accompanying pilots.
In a combat environment these loyal wingmen would scout ahead using a combination of sophisticated sensors, engage targets using their superhuman precision and reflexes, and sacrifice themselves shielding manned fighters from enemy fire.
The Skyborg program aims to develop such a capability for the U.S. Air Force and now pits 13 companies against each other in a contest for $400 million of delivery orders. With 2023 as a deadline for the development of the first prototype, some companies presumably will focus on vehicle design and weapons systems, while others will develop software and interfaces that will control the aircraft. The adoption of several different designs for different purposes, or a merging of them into one modular design, is also not out of the question.
With the context out of the way, let’s check out all 13 competing companies and see what they have to offer.
Wichita State University
The Kansas-based university is possibly the strangest participant of the program. Back in 2019, it issued a challenge for their students to design different components of the new combat drone, competing for a prize pool of $35,000. 10 teams are to be selected and collaborate on the final design, set to be presented to the U.S. Department of Defense in 2021. Three subsystems the students are designing are lift, energy and structure, meaning, they are likely to present an aircraft prototype without an AI to fly it.
Although the concept design is not yet announced, there is an upbeat video advertising the challenge, made by the university’s Innovations Center. The video somehow forgets to mention that students are invited to design a combat vehicle.
Blue Force Technologies
Based in North Carolina, Blue Force Technologies (BFT) is a relatively new company that offers everything from aircraft concept development to prototype production. They lean heavily on innovative techniques, such as digital analysis and rapid prototyping, and have completed several prominent orders for DARPA, Boeing and Airbus.
While their Skyborg design is undisclosed, amongst the firm’s advertising material there are several pictures of 3D models that look suspiciously like different takes on a small, jet-powered supersonic drone. Although the models do not seem to have weapon bays, indicating that they can be intended as cruise missiles or aerial targets, at least one features stealth design and a tricycle landing gear – a dead giveaway. It is unlikely that the same exact design will be presented to the competition, but it shows the direction BFT is working on.
BFT’s promotional material (Image: Blue Force technologies)
The company mostly works on hardware and software for unmanned and optionally-manned vehicles, developing everything from control stations with augmented reality capabilities to swarming AI. Two of their most interesting (and most relevant for the Skyborg program) lines of work are autonomy behaviors and manned-unmanned teaming, the exact capabilities any loyal wingman needs.
Autodyne does not shy from boasting about their work on combat vehicles and systems, but does not provide any exact information in regards to Skyborg. Most likely, they will offer the software and interface development that will be combined with a vehicle developed by some other company.
Do you remember the story about the robot hummingbird commissioned by DARPA? Or MacCready Gossamer Condor, the first human-powered aircraft to cross the English Channel? AeroVironment (AV) is the company which did both of those. Nowadays they mostly focus on reconnaissance drones and loitering munitions, developing and building light and ultralight UAVs for military and commercial sectors.
All of their heaviest drones are hand-launched, although the company has a history of building heavier experimental aircraft. In the context of Skyborg, they can offer the development of an aircraft with cutting-edge technologies and materials, as well as control systems, interfaces and operational support.
One of more secretive companies on the list, Fregata Systems (FR) won several contracts with various U.S. agencies for the development of information systems and aircraft modification. They are unlikely to be developing an UAV, but rather working on the computer hardware to be packed into one.
The company offers everything from research to fabrication and testing of all kinds of unmanned vehicles and has a history of contracts with USAF, DARPA and other agencies. Judging from the promotional materials, they have successfully flown a number of military drone designs of varying sizes and complexity.
Amongst the most interesting are several NextGen drones that seem to be capable of supersonic or at least transonic flight and have varying geometry wings that can change not only their sweep, but width too. If developed further, those can be some of the most unusual participants of the Skyborg competition.
Sierra Technical Services
A start-up founded by retired Lockheed Martin Skunk Works employees, Sierra Technical Services has worked on composite design and engineering. In 2017, the firm was awarded a contract to build the Fifth Generation Aerial Target (5GAT) – an UAV designed to imitate fighter jets of the latest generation. Cannibalizing parts of various other aircraft, 5GAT was built cheaply, and performed ground tests in early 2020.
The company said that it would offer the 5GAT for Skyborg competition. The aircraft is notable for its size, being much bigger than any other likely entrant of the Skyborg program. Nevertheless, it is relatively easy to produce and has somewhat of a dogfighting capability.
BAE System Controls
A subsidiary of the British defense giant, BAE System Controls is focused on military electronic systems and vehicles. BAE built their first stealth drone technology demonstrator, Taranis, back in 2010, and is actively working on both hardware and software for UAVs, including swarming and teaming algorithms. They are also building the Tempest, Britain’s 6th generation fighter jet.
Interestingly, BAE does not participate in the UK’s loyal wingman program, called Lightweight affordable novel combat aircraft (LANCA), aimed at developing AI-controlled support for the Tempest. It is unclear what BAE will offer for Skyborg and why it has opted for American market bypassing the British one. In any case, their offer is going to be rather interesting.
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems
The developers of the world’s most produced combat drones – MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper – have made a bit of a fuss in early 2020. Out of nowhere, they tweeted a novel idea to protect their larger and more vulnerable aircraft, presumably tankers and AWACS airplanes, with Defenders – air combat capable drones. They even provided a concept drawing, featuring some form of the Avenger drone armed with air-to-air missiles and aerial refueling capability.
Whether they will go for a similar idea, developing the Avenger into a loyal wingman, or produce completely new design specifically for Skyborg remains a mystery.
Another U.S. aerospace behemoth, Northrop Grumman has developed combat and surveillance UAVs of all shapes and sizes. It was one of the pioneers of the now-ubiquitous concept of the flying-wing stealth drone with the X-47A back in the early 2000s, seemingly dropping its development several years later. Although the current line-up of their products does not contain anything easily developable into the loyal wingman, there is little doubt that the company has ample capability to design it from the ground-up or base the design on any of earlier aircraft.
Amongst the first to explore manned-unmanned teaming with their Have Raider experiments, and possibly the first to try out the stealth reconnaissance UAV concept with RQ-3 DarkStar, Lockheed Martin is not as open about their newest developments as some of their competitors. Unless those developments suddenly get captured over Iran, as happened with their RQ-170 Sentinel drone in 2011.
Although there is a near-absolute possibility that Lockheed Martin has developed their own take on the loyal wingman formula, it is hard to speculate when – and if – they will choose to reveal it.
Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems
One of the fastest-growing aerospace companies, Kratos claims it was the first one to come up with the loyal wingman concept, after noticing that their aerial targets can serve a combat purpose. Quite definitely they were the first to fly a prototype of one, with XQ-58 Valkyrie taking to the skies in early 2019. Since then, it became world-famous as the first dedicated unmanned fighter jet, despite at the time being little more than a technology demonstrator.
By the way, Valkyrie’s smaller and less stealthy brother UTAP-22 Mako also deserves a shout out as an aerial target modified into a loyal wingman capable of ground attack.
Somewhat overshadowing the Valkyrie, Boeing gained a lot of attention by presenting their Airpower Teaming System (ATS) in 2020. The aircraft was developed by their Australian subsidiary for the Royal Australian Air Force, raising the question of its relation to the Skyborg program. It is unlikely that Boeing will try to come up with something completely different for the American market, though.