Over A Dozen Companies Awarded Contracts For Air Force's Skyborg Combat Drone Program

The U.S. Air Force is seeking to begin work on a drone using AI technologies before the end of the year.

Boeing

No fewer than 13 companies will compete for their share of a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars in total to help develop various technologies that could go into “loyal wingman” type unmanned aircraft and autonomous unmanned combat air vehicles as part of the U.S. Air Force Skyborg program. The service is meanwhile seeking to begin work on a drone using Skyborg’s AI technologies before the end of the year.

The contract awards are for the Skyborg Prototyping, Experimentation and Autonomy Development portion of the project, or SPEAD, work under which is expected to continue until 2026.

As well as working on Skyborg “missionized prototypes,” the latest contracts encompass subsequent experimentation and development of autonomous capabilities, including operational trials.

The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC) issued this second round of awards under the indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contract, which has a shared funding ceiling of $400 million, on September 29, 2020.

The following vendors are now among those competing for individual task orders under the overarching Skyborg contract:

• AeroVironment Inc., Simi Valley, California 

• Autonodyne LLC, Boston, Massachusetts 

• BAE System Controls Inc., Arlington, Virginia 

• Blue Force Technologies Inc., Morrisville, North Carolina 

• Fregata System Inc., St. Louis, Missouri 

• Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, Fort Worth, Texas 

• NextGen Aeronautics Inc., Torrance, California 

• Sierra Technical Services, Tehachapi, California 

• Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas  

These companies join Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics, and Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems, which had been the first to receive awards under the larger Skyborg contract in July. This all follows a formal call for proposals issued in May. 

“This second phase of awards establishes a diverse and competitive vendor pool by adding several non-traditional and traditional contractors we saw as important additions to the effort,” explained Air Force Brigadier General Dale White, the Program Executive Officer for Fighters and Advanced Aircraft and one of the Skyborg program leaders. 

The next milestone for Skyborg, which was first unveiled publicly in March 2019, will include air vehicle prototype designs, which the Air Force expects to begin developing later this year. 

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Kratos' XQ-58 Valkyrie is one leading contender for supplying an airframe for the Skyborg program. 

The idea of having multiple contractors has been baked into the Skyborg program from the outset and the AFLCMC has said it wants to “award as many IDIQ contracts as practicable, and to include additional contractors over time.” 

Compared to modern manned fighter jets, for example, the threshold to entry in the development of attritable drones is significantly lower. This factor should ultimately be reflected in a drone, or family of drones, that comes in at a comparatively low cost. By their nature, the Skyborg systems should be affordable enough that commanders are willing to use them in higher-risk scenarios from which they might not return.

The Skyborg program is also beginning to show possible parallels with the Air Force’s much-discussed “Digital Century Series” concept for the development of future combat aircraft, which you can read about in more detail in this War Zone piece. Like that initiative, the service says that the second phase of Skyborg awards demonstrates “continuous efforts to identify applicable technology and expeditiously inject it into the program to meet warfighter needs.”

The high priority assigned to the Skyborg program was confirmed in late 2019 when it was earmarked as one of the first three so-called Vanguard programs under the Air Force Science and Technology (S&T) 2030 initiative. The other two were Golden Horde, which will demonstrate autonomous weapons, such as missiles, that are networked together so that they can work collaboratively as a team, and the Navigation Technology Satellite 3 (NTS-3), which is expected to “enhance space-based Positioning, Navigation and Timing across the ground, space and user equipment segments.” 

Crucially, these Vanguard developmental efforts are all planned to field systems rapidly. This is exactly what the Air Force needs from Skyborg, with plans to field an initial version of the system operationally in 2023.

The U.S. Air Force wants Skyborg to provide the technologies for a highly autonomous, low-cost, teamed aircraft that can fly in contested environments including campaigns against near-peer adversaries. Rather than being a single platform, the program’s goal is to yield a family of interrelated unmanned aerial vehicle technologies to support a range of Air Force missions. There’s also a suggestion that, as autonomous technology matures, the Skyborg program will introduce new capabilities even faster and cheaper than in its initial iterations.

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Inside one of the Skyborg autonomous attritable aircraft, we can expect to see resilient communications and navigation systems, as well as flight-control software to ensure that it can still complete its mission even if denied access to GPS navigation or otherwise subjected to jamming. In addition to that, the drone’s autonomy means it is expected to perform the simpler parts of the mission — take-off and landing, etc — independently.

Earlier this year the Air Force gave an idea of how Skyborg would also be able to operate in networked groups “tethered” to manned aircraft or operate fully autonomously. You can read more about how the Skyborg is intended to fit into a wider aerial combat ecosystem in this previous War Zone feature.

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In terms of how it will operate alongside manned aircraft in a “team,” the Air Force has confirmed that the Skyborg will not have a role in “lethal decision-making,” but will provide information to human pilots to aid decision-making and boost situational awareness. Making use of onboard sensors and algorithms, a Skyborg-equipped UAV could provide data to the pilots of manned aircraft that might relate to air and ground threats, as well as presenting options for attacking or evading enemy aircraft.

The Air Force expects the Skyborg to make use of open-architecture and modular systems that won’t just enable new technology and capabilities to be inserted, but also ensure that the system as a whole can be scalable and be introduced to various platforms.

Despite some previous concept artwork, it’s unclear exactly what the Skyborg host vehicles might look like. In the past the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) said it aimed to first test Skyborg on a loyal wingman-type attritable drone. Elements of the system could then potentially progress to a fighter jet-sized unmanned combat air vehicle. Given the companies involved so far, there will certainly be multiple competing air vehicle design concepts. 

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Concept art of a notional loyal wingman-type drone from an AFRL Skyborg video.

Beyond that, there’s potential for the same systems to migrate into manned aircraft. The concept of an artificial-intelligence-driven virtual co-pilot is something the Air Force is exploring under its R2D2 program. Similar efforts are underway elsewhere within the U.S. military, as well.

Speaking back in March 2019, Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, said he wanted to see “real, operational demonstrations” of Skyborg architecture “within a couple of years.” 

With that in mind, together with this latest contract announcement, we might not have to wait long until we see the Air Force’s autonomous attritable aircraft technology under test.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com