USAF Reveals Skyborg Combat Drone In The Sky By 2023

The Air Force office of Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation (SDPE) at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is developing a prototype autonomous, unmanned combat air vehicle testing platform with an operational capability as soon as 2023, the service announced Tuesday.

"Skyborg is a vessel for AI [artificial intelligence] technologies that could range from rather simple algorithms to fly the aircraft and control them in airspace to the introduction of more complicated levels of AI to accomplish certain tasks or subtasks of the mission," AFRL Aerospace Systems Directorate engineer Matt Duquett said.

Earlier this month, SDPE issued a capability request for information (CRFI) to private industry to gain insight into commercially available technology that can meet the requirements of the Skyborg program.

"Low cost, attritables, unmanned air vehicles are one way to bring mass to the fight when it comes to addressing potential near-peer engagements in the future," according to Ben Tran, Skyborg program manager.

"We also know there is heavy investment by our near-peer adversaries in artificial intelligence and autonomy in general. We know that when you couple autonomy and AI with systems like low-cost attritables, that can increase capability significantly and be a force multiplier for our Air Force and so the 2023 goal line is our attempt at bringing something to bear in a relatively quick time frame to show that we can bring that kind of capability to the fight," said Tran.

Although Skyborg will not be integrated into an airframe this year, the CRFI highlights the "importance of an open systems architecture, having modularity in the system, not only from a sensing capabilities standpoint, but overall mission systems, as well as the autonomy associated with the mission capability for the platform," said Tran.

“We’ve partnered with the 412th Test Wing at Edwards Air Force Base, California, and specifically an organization called the Emerging Technologies Combined Test Force and we’re working with them beginning with small, fast-moving UAVs to test the current state of the art in AI and autonomy in those airplanes and the ability for them to autonomously team and collaborate in flight,” Tran said.

Maj. Ryan Carr, from AFRL’s Aerospace Systems Directorate, said machine learning algorithms have rapidly progressed in the last several years, and program personnel is very excited to incorporate this technology into an existing airframe.

We expect that technology will continue to mature fairly rapidly. What we really need to understand is, ‘How do you take that and do something like bring it to the real world and fly with it for example?’ The thing we’re trying to get at early on is how to do that safely. We’re talking about run-time assurance, working hand-in-hand with the flight test community who have a very long record of safe flight testing. That’s really what we want to focus our attention on in this early period,” Carr said.

“We want to do this in a way that builds trust in the system as you go along so that when you get to that EOC, you will have established a baseline of trust so that operational youth will believe what the system will do or believe it’s safe. It’s not just that end-state capability, it’s the trust as you go along,” he added.

Before operational AI software is integrated into an airframe, the Air Force is expected to deploy a new combat drone; however, no such drone was mentioned in the release.

Earlier this month, we documented a likely candidate of the Skyborg program in a never before seen video of the Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie, an unmanned combat air vehicle, which completed its first flight on March 5, 2019, at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona.