Boeing Is Adapting Its Australian Combat Drone For The U.S. Air Force's Skyborg Program

As Australia signs up for more of the Airpower Teaming System drones, Boeing confirms it will use the design as the basis for its Skyborg offering.

Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence

Just days after the first flight of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System combat drone that’s being developed for Australia, the company confirmed this unmanned aircraft will also provide the basis for its offering for the U.S. Air Force’s Skyborg loyal wingman program. In the meantime, the Royal Australian Air Force, or RAAF, has doubled its order for the drone, now buying six examples in total, as the program continues to hit new milestones.

More details of the Airpower Teaming System (ATS) drone emerged at a reporters’ round table event, following yesterday’s announcement of its maiden flight, which Boeing confirmed took place on February 27. Today also saw Australia confirm its follow-on order for another three of the ATS vehicles, at a cost of around $89 million over three years.

Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence

The Airpower Teaming System drone conducts its first flight at Woomera Range Complex, South Australia.

The most significant revelation, although perhaps not necessarily surprising, is the fact that the ATS design will be leveraged for the USAF’s Skyborg program. Skyborg covers the development a whole range of systems that will form an artificial intelligence-driven “computer brain” capable of flying networked “loyal wingman” type drones and autonomous unmanned combat air vehicles, or UCAVs.

Boeing, of course, was one of three companies — together with General Atomics and Kratos — that received contracts last December to build prototype airframes to carry systems developed under the Skyborg program.

The fact that there are clear parallels between the RAAF and USAF programs had led to The War Zone predicting in the past that the ATS could emerge as a Skyborg contender. Jared Hayes, Senior Director of Autonomous Aviation and Technology at Boeing has now said that its Skyborg will share a “common core” with the RAAF’s ATS but that “what becomes unique is the missionization.” However, we don’t yet know what percentage of components will be common between the two designs. 

This last point references the fact that the ATS has been designed from the outset for modularity, allowing it to be rapidly reconfigured for different types of missions. Key to this is the eight-and-a-half-foot-long snap-on, snap-off nose, offering around 9,000 cubic inches of space to carry various payloads, as you can read about here.

Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence
Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence

Exactly what future ATS and Skyborg drones will carry in terms of mission payloads remains a closely guarded secret. Potentially, however, the drones could be adapted to mount a wide variety of sensors, including radars and/or electro-optical sensors, communications gateways, electronic warfare payloads, or even defensive lasers. What kinetic weaponry it can carry, or even what type of payload configuration it can accommodate for munitions, also remains undisclosed. 

As yet, we know next to nothing about timelines, schedules, numbers of aircraft, or even where the ATS-derived Skyborg drones will be built. Little is actually known about the program in general, although the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, as the contract-awarding authority, has said it requires “missionized prototypes with the ability to fly in experimentation events while teaming with manned aircraft” and the initial drones are reportedly expected to be delivered no later than May this year.

Intriguingly, however, Hayes also noted that the company is meanwhile taking into account “other global customer mission needs” as it continues to develop the ATS, suggesting that there may be other customers lining up beyond Australia and the United States. This is something The War Zone has stressed would be an eventuality since the program first emerged. 

Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence

Boeing confirmed that a second ATS vehicle for Australia is now also complete and has begun ground tests, with others in “various states of assembly,” according to Arnott.

Some clues were also provided into how Boeing has managed to make significant strides in the ATS so rapidly. After all, it was only 14 months ago that the program was announced, while the first prototype emerged for ground tests last summer.

Shane Arnott, the ATS Program Director, pointed to the company’s use of “digital twins,” highly detailed surrogate drones that exist only in the virtual realm, but which can be used in a way that parallels traditional flight test using real prototypes. In this way, Arnott explained, the program has got “a number of steps ahead,” including thousands of hours of development work already accumulated in a digital environment.

When it came to the recent first flight of the real ATS prototype — which measures 38 feet long, with a wingspan of 24 feet — much of the groundwork had already been done in digital form. The first flight test profile was intended to validate basic flight functions and included a significant degree of autonomous operations.

Boeing

A human operator selected various commands and the drone then initiated those movements, including taxiing to the runway, takeoff, flight to the mission area, landing, and taxiing back to the ramp.

For this first flight test, there was no mission payload, with the drone instead being fitted with what Arnott described as a “flight test nose” carrying instrumentation to record test data.

According to the company, the ATS comes with a ferry range of 2,000 nautical miles, which compares favorably with a manned tactical fighter: the USAF quotes a ferry range of 1,740 nautical miles for its F-16C fighter jet. Already, Boeing and the RAAF are also looking at ways to operate ATS from more austere locations, include sites where they might use roads as runways, which could enable them to support distributed operations, as well. This, meanwhile, is already a key concern for the U.S. military in the Indo-Pacific theater and suggests that the RAAF might also be looking to follow suit, developing greater independence from potentially vulnerable airbases.

On top of all this, the ATS is being developed according to the principles of attritability, with the manufacturer acknowledging that the customer seeks a vehicle with a cost point that means it will be “willing to lose the aircraft,” in Arnott’s words.

All in all, these are exciting times for the ATS, and for the whole of Boeing’s combat drone enterprise. We have long anticipated that the ATS could bring a revolution to the way the RAAF uses its airpower. Now, with its entry to Skyborg, the same could be true for the U.S. Air Force.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com