Military forces around the world are arguably one of the largest investors in drone technologies. For years now, the United States military sectors have relied on the use of drones for countless purposes. The US government spends billions on the advancement of military drones each year. Many of the contracts the US military has awarded to drone manufacturers have been allotted to the Boeing Company. Not only is Boeing one of the largest aerospace manufacturers in the world, but they are also the second largest worldwide defense contractor. They build everything from planes and rockets to satellites, communication systems, missiles, and of course drones. Recently Boeing partnered with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to push the boundaries of military drone capabilities.
This new partnership is a landmark occurrence for both Australia and Boeing. In a statement released by Boeing, they stated that for Australia, it marks the first aircraft “to be designed, engineered and manufactured in Australia in more than 50 years.” While for Boeing, this is their “largest investment in an unmanned aircraft outside of the United States.” The aircraft being built is The Boeing Airpower Teaming System (ATS), also being called the Loyal Wingman aircraft. As put forth in Boeing’s overview, “How can you extend and expand the capabilities of some of the world’s most elite airpower systems? By multiplying their capabilities – and exponentially increasing their ability to project force as a result. The Boeing Airpower Teaming System is a new unmanned aircraft using artificial intelligence to be that force multiplier. It’s designed to work as a smart team with existing military aircraft to complement and extend airborne missions.”
A fleet of low cost drones can fly in formation along with a manned aircraft for a multitude of operations. Drones have been used in this “wingman” capacity before, but not autonomously. Previously, drones like the MQ-9 Reaper, would need to be controlled by someone on the ground, handing over the controls to the pilot in the accompanying manned aircraft. As Shane Arnott, Boeing’s ATS program director pointed out, “When you are teaming, say with a Super Hornet, they don’t have the luxury during combat maneuvers or operations to be remotely piloting another aircraft while doing their own.” ATS pairs with a manned aircraft through artificial intelligence so the pilot can pre-program the drone’s objectives then focus solely on their own aircraft.
The cost efficient, 38ft long unmanned jet can travel up to 2,000 nautical miles and as outlined in a fact sheet from Boeing, “Integrate sensor packages onboard to support intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, tactical early warning missions and more. Use artificial intelligence to fly independently or in support of manned aircraft while maintaining safe distance between other aircraft.” What makes the ATS so versatile can be found in the drone’s nose. The nose of the aircraft can be quickly snapped off and switched out with the software and hardware needed dependent on the the mission to mounted. The 9,000 cubic foot changeable payload allows the drone to rapidly switch from a reconnaissance mission to a combat mission. In a situation where multiple ATS systems are being used, as is intended, each drone could have a payload outfitted to carryout specific tactical operations in one mission.
Usually, a project like this can take years to bring to fruition. Amazingly, in just 14 months Boeing and the RAAF have been able to build a working model to scale to begin testing. The model is currently being tested through ground based trials with the goal of getting the drone airborne in early 2021. Kristin Robertson, vice president and general manager of Autonomous Systems for Boeing Defense, Space & Security, said “We look forward to getting the aircraft into flight testing and proving out the unmanned teaming concept. We see global allies with those same mission needs, which is why this program is so important to advancing the development of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System.” She went on to say, “We are proud to take this significant step forward with the Royal Australian Air Force and show the potential for smart unmanned teaming to serve as a force multiplier.”