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.

A swarm of small, fast, cockpitless fighter jets are flying in a tight circle around an F-22 Raptor, reacting to its every move, waiting for a command. They will scout ahead, attack or sacrifice themselves if needed, relying on their superhuman reaction time and precision to execute manoeuvres that human pilots would never manage to do. This is the way many nations envision the air combat of the future. But why?

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.

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