The US Air Force (USAF) has launched a competition to design the artificially intelligent software, called Skyborg, that would control its planned fleet of loyal wingman unmanned air vehicles (UAVs).

The service intends to grant indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contracts worth $400 million per awardee to develop the software and related hardware, it says in a request for proposals released on 15 May. The USAF is looking for technical and cost proposals from companies by 15 June 2020 and intends to award multiple contracts, although it may award just one or none at all, based on the proposals received.

US Air Force Research Laboratory XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator

Source: US Air Force

US Air Force Research Laboratory XQ-58A Valkyrie, a possible demonstrator UAV for Skyborg software

Skyborg would be artificially intelligent software used to control the flight path, weapons and sensors of large numbers of UAVs. Automating flight control, in particular via artificial intelligence, is seen as necessary to allow a single person, perhaps a backseat operator in a fighter, to command multiple UAVs at once.

In particular, the USAF wants Skyborg software and hardware to control “attritable” UAVs; aircraft with limited lifespans that are cheap enough to be produced in large numbers and could be affordably lost to combat attrition. Those UAVs could be used as loyal wingman aircraft alongside manned fighters, bombers and support aircraft.

The US Air Force Research Laboratory is leading development of these aircraft through its Low Cost Attritable Strike Demonstration programme. That effort has produced the Kratos Defense & Security Solutions XQ-58A Valkyrie, a UAV that has completed several demonstration flights. Boeing and the Royal Australian Air Force also have developed a loyal wingman called the Airpower Teaming System. That UAV’s first flight is expected later this year.

“The intent of Skyborg is to integrate an autonomy mission system core and suite of services, [which are to be] developed under a separate Skyborg System Design Agent programme, with multiple low-cost air vehicle systems, each designed to perform one or more mission types,” says the USAF. “The Skyborg core will be a best-of-breed combination of industry and government solutions.”

The initial contract will be used to develop the first integrated Skyborg system, the first to be used in a family of aircraft, says the service. 

The UAVs are to have modular hardware and software payloads that use a common Skyborg autonomy mission system, and enable manned and unmanned teaming. The USAF wants to use the modularity to quickly plug and play software and hardware changes that would be needed to defeat new threats from near-peer militaries, such as China or Russia.

“Low-cost unmanned vehicles are envisioned to augment high-end manned systems through a series of next-generation UAVs that are affordable, effective, quickly designed and produced,” says the service. “In order to be truly affordable, acquisition, operation and maintenance costs would need to be correspondingly very low as compared to current tactical aircraft. There will also be a large need to offer a short development cycle so that variants could rapidly be procured as needed.”

Previously, the USAF has said it wanted a Skyborg-controlled UAV reaching early operational capability as soon as 2023.