BAE Systems is to leverage its experience in autonomous systems, as it seeks to develop an attritable drone under the U.S. Air Force’s Skyborg program, the company said on Oct. 22.

The Air Force launched Skyborg in May in an effort to field an artificial intelligence (AI)-driven system to be a “quarterback in the sky” for manned aircraft. Skyborg is one of the service’s three “Vanguard” programs, which are the service’s top science and technology priorities and are meant to demonstrate the rapid viability of emerging technology (Defense Daily, Nov. 21, 2019).

Ehtisham Siddiqui, vice president and general manager of BAE Systems’ controls and avionics solutions, said in a statement that “the need to generate combat power faster than our adversaries is critical to address near-peer threats.” The company said that its Skyborg design would leverage BAE’s prior work for DoD dating back to the autonomy software design for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) in 2002.

The BAE Systems design is to feature a manned-unmanned shared, modular network that can accommodate rapid updates and integration, the company said.

“The shared network enables manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T), which allows UAVs and manned aircraft to work together and complete missions more effectively,” per BAE Systems. “The network extends the reach of the fleet, while keeping the manned aircraft and personnel out of harm’s way. It will allow the UAVs to serve as the eyes and ears for pilots, collecting and sending data from the battlespace to a manned fighter.”

BAE is one of 13 entrants competing for up to $400 million in contracts under Skyborg. In addition to BAE, the competitors are Boeing [BA], Lockheed Martin [LMT], Northrop Grumman [NOC], General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., Kratos Defense and Security Solutions [KTOS], AeroVironment, Inc., Blue Force Technologies, Inc., Fregata Systems LLCAutonodyne LLC, NextGen Aeronautic Inc., Sierra Technical Services Inc., and Wichita State University,

Skyborg is 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 frustrate adversaries.

AFRL has used Kratos’ XQ-58A Valkyrie as an example of what the Skyborg prototype could look like.