The Air Force has launched a new program to develop an artificial intelligence “wingman” that would train alongside pilots and perhaps eventually be linked to an unmanned attritable aircraft, the service’s acquisition chief said March 15.

The effort, dubbed “Skyborg,” seeks to develop ways to use AI to control low-cost aircraft for use in congested airspace, or to respond to threats more quickly, Will Roper, Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, first told reporters Wednesday at the McAleese/Credit Suisse defense conference March 13, according to multiple outlets.

The Kratos-built XQ-58A Valkyrie completed a successful first flight March 6, 2019. (Photo: Air Force)

He elaborated on the premise in a media gaggle Friday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., saying, “Our first step on Skyborg is going to be trying to … have a quarterback in the sky that’s working with a team that can call audibles and change what they do,” Roper said.

Eventually, the service could incorporate the AI pilot onto aircraft such as the XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator, a long-range, high subsonic unmanned aerial vehicle developed by the Air Force Research Lab and Kratos Defense and Security Solutions. The aircraft completed a successful first flight March 6 and has five planned test flights for 2019.

Skyborg draws upon Roper’s work at the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office on a similar program called Avatar to create a low-cost aircraft that could be connected to tactical fighters, and it made sense to try and add an artificial intelligence element to it “so that they could learn and adapt,” Roper said. He had wanted to name that original program Skyborg, but was “politely asked to change the name,” he noted.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, built by Lockheed Martin [LMT], is “a great case study” for the concept as it prepares to receive a new technology refresh in the next couple of years, which will provide the aircraft with open mission systems and a UAV control interface. “That fighter could control other systems, which is a pretty awesome concept,” Roper said.

While the program is in its infancy, Roper is looking for “every opportunity to push the technology into programs” and gain feedback, he said.

“I want to get it out in the field in the hands of warfighters so they can start telling me what they require of it, what they need next,” he said. “I’m tired about speculating on AI in warfare. I want to do it and start getting lessons learned.”

Boeing [BA] in February unveiled a new unmanned fighter jet that would operate under a similar concept called “Loyal Wingman” at the Australian Air Show in Avalon. The Airpower Teaming System is being developed with the Royal Australian Air Force and a prototype is expected to fly in 2020, multiple outlets reported.