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

The May 15 Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) solicitation indicates the Air Force plans to award indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contracts worth up to $400 million in total over five years. The service reserves the right to award one contract, multiple or none. Proposals are due June 5, with an expected award date in early July.

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.”

An array of companies could bid on the program. The Air Force Research Laboratory has been partnering with Kratos Defense and Security Solutions [KTOS] 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.

The solicitation is open to all companies capable of providing “a viable and relevant product, to include Kratos,” said Maj. Felix Abeyta, Skyborg program manager at the Advanced Aircraft Directorate under the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC) in a May 20 email to Defense Daily.

“Prospective awardees will deliver missionized prototype vehicles capable of integration and support for the Skyborg autonomous system for operational experimentation, and other activities related to the development of the program,” Abeyta said. “The activities under the ID/IQ award(s) will be leveraged to shape future AF requirements and potential production decisions for future autonomous capabilities in support of Skyborg requirements.”

Boeing [BA] confirmed in a Wednesday email to Defense Daily that it plans to pitch 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.

“We have been tracking the Skyborg program since inception and are eager to support the customer’s needs,” said Jerad Hayes, Boeing senior director for autonomous aviation and technology. “ATS is designed for operational requirements that we see customers needing around the world.  We continue to see interest across the Department of Defense in this capability, and we’re engaged with the U.S. industrial base on opportunities to missionize the aircraft for U.S. needs.”

Lockheed Martin’s [LMT] Skunk Works unit also plans to submit a proposal “leveraging the leading-edge approaches Skunk Works is known for and decades of expertise designing, developing and fielding ISR & UAS solutions,” a company spokesperson said in a Wednesday email to Defense Daily.

General Atomics-Aeronautics Systems Inc. also plans to submit a proposal, a spokesperson confirmed to Defense Daily Wednesday.

“For almost three decades, General Atomics has provided the U.S. Air Force with the most effective and operationally available unmanned assets in its fleet,” the spokesman said in an email. “Given our long history of company-funded innovation that anticipate customer needs, we look forward to supporting these requirements, as well.”

Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper first announced the Skyborg program in March 2019. The Air Force has named the effort one of its three “Vanguard” programs, which are the service’s top science and technology priorities and are meant to quickly demonstrate the viability of emerging tech (Defense Daily, Nov. 21, 2019).

The service included $25 million for the Skyborg effort as part of its “unfunded budget priorities” list for fiscal year 2021. Roper told reporters this past February that the Skyborg procurement program is likely to be included in the FY ’22 budget request (Defense Daily, Feb. 21).