The US Air Force (USAF) has awarded contracts to Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems to build and fly Skyborg prototypes as loyal wingman unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) in a series of experiments.

Per recently awarded contracts, the initial UAVs are to be delivered no later than May 2021 and are to conduct initial flight tests prior to “experimentation events” starting in July 2021, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center said on 7 December.

US Air Force Research Labratory XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator

Source: US Air Force Research Laboratory

XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator

The contracts are to be executed over the next 24 months, and have “multiple phases, meant to continue evaluation of the performance of the vendors”, says the service. As part of the experimental effort, Boeing received $25.8 million, General Atomics $14.3 million and Kratos $37.7 million.

Skyborg is to be an “attritable” UAV – a type of aircraft built cheaply enough that it doesn’t break the bank if lost in combat in large numbers. For the USAF, that means a price between $2 million and $20 million per aircraft. To enable the service to field large numbers of the UAV alongside manned aircraft, the drone is to be controlled via an artificially intelligent system, called the Skyborg Autonomous Core System.

“The aim of the Skyborg Vanguard programme is to integrate autonomous attritable unmanned air vehicle technology with open missions systems to enable manned-unmanned teaming,” says the USAF. “Skyborg will provide the foundation on which the air force can build an airborne autonomous best-of-breed system that adapts, orients and decides at machine speed for a wide variety of increasingly complex mission sets.”

Airpower Teaming System c Boeing

Source: Boeing

Airpower Teaming System

It is not clear how Skyborg aircraft proposals from the three companies differ, as none of the contractors have disclosed their bids. However, Kratos and Boeing have publicly disclosed work on similar UAV development efforts.

For its part, Kratos has been flying its Valkyrie XQ-58A UAV for the US Air Force Research Laboratory’s Loyal Wingman programme, a related attritable aircraft effort. Boeing, in partnership with the Royal Australian Air Force, has developed the Airpower Teaming System, a similar attritable UAV which is supposed to make its first flight soon. General Atomics has not shown any real or rendered images of its UAV design for the Skyborg programme or any related attritable aircraft development efforts.

Skyborg is one of the USAF’s top science and technology development priorities, a so-called Vanguard programme. The service sees the AI-controlled drone as a way to expand its number of combat squadrons more cost-effectively than adding expensive manned fighter jets.