The U.S. Air Force’s Skyborg program–one of four service Vanguard efforts–conducted a two hour and thirty minute flight test on June 24 of the Skyborg autonomy core system (ACS) aboard a General Atomics MQ-20 Avenger tactical drone during the Orange Flag 21-2 exercise at Edwards AFB, Calif., the Air Force said this week.
ACS is to be the collaboration and autonomy-enabling “brain” of Skyborg.
“By integrating the ACS on the MQ-20 less than two months after completing tests on the UTAP-22, the Skyborg team proved the ACS’s modularity, portability, and scalability by demonstrating the same capabilities on a completely different aircraft using the same software release,” per the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC) at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.
During the June 24 flight, the ACS “performed a series of foundational behaviors necessary to characterize safe system operation,” per AFLCMC. “Once the MQ-20 safety pilot had achieved steady, level flight at altitude, the operator handed over control to the ACS to demonstrate its ability to execute basic flight autonomy behaviors. The ACS accomplished basic aviation behaviors and responded to navigational commands, while reacting to geo-fences, adhering to aircraft flight envelopes, and demonstrating coordinated maneuvering. It was monitored from a ground command and control station.”
The June 24 flight also marked the first time that the Emerging Technologies Combined Test Force at the Air Force’s 412th Test Wing had worked on a Group 5 unmanned aircraft system (UAS), per AFLCMC. Under Group 5 are drones that have a maximum gross takeoff weight of more than 1,320 pounds, an operating altitude of more than 18,000 feet and that are able to fly faster than 250 knots per hour.
“Future Skyborg experimentation events will explore direct manned-unmanned teaming between manned aircraft and multiple ACS-controlled unmanned aircraft,” AFLCMC said.
Last December, the Air Force awarded more than $76 million to Kratos, Boeing [BA], and General Atomics to build prototypes for the service’s Skyborg Vanguard program and fly them in teaming with manned aircraft (Defense Daily, Dec. 7, 2020).
Skyborg is to develop a family of attritable aircraft systems with a common artificial intelligence 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 a Skyborg prototype could look like.
The Air Force is eyeing an initial operational capability for Skyborg in 2023.