Boeing's Drone Fighter Jet Sidekick Just Took Its First Flight

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Test flight of the Boeing-built drone-jet hybrid for Loyal Wingman program. (Courtesy of Boeing)
Test flight of the Boeing-built drone-jet hybrid prototype developed for the Royal Australian Air Force as part of its Loyal Wingman program. (Courtesy of Boeing)

The Royal Australian Air Force's first Boeing-built, drone-jet hybrid prototype -- part of its "Loyal Wingman" program -- made its first test flight last week.

The company said Monday that it had held a series of taxi, takeoff and flight tests for the drone, which could someday play sidekick to fourth- and fifth-generation fighter jets, according to a news release.

"The Loyal Wingman's first flight is a major step in this long-term, significant project for the Air Force and Boeing Australia, and we're thrilled to be a part of the successful test," said Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts, head of Air Force capability for the RAAF.

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"The Loyal Wingman project is a pathfinder for the integration of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence to create smart human-machine teams; through this project, we are learning how to integrate these new capabilities to complement and extend air combat and other missions," Roberts said in the Boeing release.

Boeing delivered the first prototype to Australia in May 2020.

It is the first aircraft "to be designed, engineered and manufactured in Australia in more than 50 years," Boeing said at the time, adding that it is the company's "largest investment in an unmanned aircraft outside of the United States."

The Feb. 28 flight demonstration was overseen by a Boeing test pilot, who observed its performance from a ground station at the RAAF's Woomera Range Complex.

From design to flight, the team was able to assemble the drone in three years, the company said.

The tests included taxiing, ground handling performance, and navigation checks prior to takeoff. Once airborne, the wingman drone flew a predetermined route "at different speeds and altitudes to verify flight functionality" and operation, the release states.

"Boeing and Australia are pioneering fully integrated combat operations by crewed and uncrewed aircraft," said Boeing Defense, Space & Security President and CEO Leanne Caret.

The aircraft, which Boeing is co-developing with the Australian government, was unveiled at the 2019 Avalon Airshow. Australia is investing roughly $40 million in the program, CNN reported.

"We're honored to be opening this part of aviation's future with the Royal Australian Air Force, and we look forward to showing others how they also could benefit from our loyal wingman capabilities," Caret said in the release.

Loyal Wingman will harness artificial intelligence "to fly independently or in support of manned aircraft while maintaining safe distance between other aircraft," according to a Boeing fact sheet. More than 35 Australian companies are supporting the effort, it adds.

The concept is similar to an American military effort.

The U.S. Air Force is working to develop its own program featuring unmanned aircraft that could think autonomously and be sent out alongside F-35 Joint Strike Fighters or other aircraft to scout enemy territory ahead of a strike, or to gather intel for the aircraft formation.

In December, the service selected three defense companies to produce unmanned aerial vehicle prototypes for its Skyborg program, which will pair a drone guided by artificial intelligence with a human piloting a fighter jet.

Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, and Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems were selected.

Skyborg is one of three initiatives under the service's Vanguard Program for rapid prototyping and development of new technologies it can leverage for multiple operations.

The Vanguard Program brings together the Air Force Research Lab and the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center to "quickly identify cutting-edge technology and transition directly into the hands of the warfighter," according to the service.

The autonomous Skyborg AI program is intended for use in reusable unmanned aerial vehicles in a manned-unmanned teaming mission; the vehicles are considered "attritable," or cheap enough that they can be destroyed without significant cost.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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