The U.S. Air Force on July 23 awarded contracts worth a possible value of $400 million to Boeing [BA], Northrop Grumman [NOC], General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. and Kratos Defense and Security Solutions [KTOS] for the Skyborg attritable aircraft–one of three Air Force Vanguard programs announced by the service last year to accelerate the fielding of next generation technologies.

“The Skyborg prototyping, experimentation and autonomy development contract will be used to deliver missionized prototypes in support of operational experimentation and develop the first Skyborg air platform with modular hardware and software payloads that will incorporate the Skyborg autonomy core system and enable manned/unmanned teaming,” according to the DoD contract announcement.  “The locations of performance are to be determined at the order level and are expected to be completed by July 2026.  These awards are being made as a result of a competitive acquisition and 18 offers were received.

In May, the Air Force released a solicitation to build prototypes for the Skyborg unmanned wingman program, with the intent of selecting one or more companies to field an artificial intelligence-driven system quickly to be a “quarterback in the sky” for manned aircraft.

Air Force officials have described the Skyborg program as an effort to develop a family of attritable aircraft systems with a common AI backbone, that can train alongside manned aircraft and eventually help complete tasks, fly ahead of Air Force pilots in non-permissive environments, and create “conundrums for adversaries.”

Air Force Brig. Gen. Heather Pringle, the commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), said in a July 23 statement that “autonomy technologies in Skyborg’s portfolio will range from simple play-book algorithms to advanced team decision making and will include on-ramp opportunities” for AI technologies.

“This effort will provide a foundational government reference architecture for a family of layered, autonomous, and open-architecture UAS,” she said.

AFRL has been partnering with Kratos with on tests of the company’s XQ-58A Valkyrie drone as part of the Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology program. The XQ-58A has to date been used as an example of what the Skyborg prototype could look like.

Boeing [BA] pitched its Airpower Teaming System (ATS) unmanned aerial system for Skyborg. ATS was developed for the Royal Australian Air Force’s Loyal Wingman program, which also seeks to develop an unmanned system that can safely integrate with manned aircraft teams.

Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper announced the Skyborg program in March 2019.