Air Force's 'Skyborg' AI System Flies for First Time in Mako Drone

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The Skyborg autonomy core system launches.
The Skyborg autonomy core system launches aboard a Kratos UTAP-22 tactical unmanned vehicle at Tyndall AFB, Florida on April 29. (U.S. Air Force)

The U.S. Air Force flew an artificial intelligence system onboard a subsonic autonomous drone for the first time last month, it announced Wednesday.

The Skyborg autonomy core system, or ACS, was loaded into a Kratos UTAP-22 "Mako" drone for a 130-minute flight test at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, on April 29, according to a service news release.

The Skyborg ACS conducted a basic flight and "responded to navigational commands while reacting to geo-fences, adhering to aircraft flight envelopes and demonstrating coordinated maneuvering," the release states.

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"We're extremely excited for the successful flight of an early version of the 'brain' of the Skyborg system," Brig. Gen. Dale White, who oversees Skyborg as the program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft, said in the release. "It is the first step in a marathon of progressive growth for Skyborg technology. These initial flights kick off the experimentation campaign that will continue to mature the ACS and build trust in the system."

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 96th Test Wing oversees the test missions, which will expand over the next few months, the release adds.

The goal is for drones loaded with the Skyborg network to fly alongside manned fighters, so the machine can learn how to maneuver and even train with the pilot. The drones will then be sent out alongside F-35 Joint Strike Fighters or other jets to scout enemy territory ahead of a strike, or to gather intel for the pilot in the formation, service officials have said.

Follow-on test events will include manned-unmanned teaming with the Skyborg ACS-controlled system, according to the release.

In 2019, Will Roper, then-assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, said the service was evaluating a number of drones for an artificial intelligence "R2-D2" role, to be paired with a human piloting a fighter jet.

Last December, Kratos was one of three defense companies chosen by the Air Force to produce unmanned aerial vehicle prototypes for the Skyborg program.

The service has already conducted multiple tests with Kratos' XQ-58A Valkyrie drone as part of its Low-Cost Attritable Strike Demonstration program, in which it seeks drones that can achieve an effect but are relatively inexpensive in case they are destroyed during a mission.

Kratos Defense CEO and President Eric DeMarco told Military.com in 2019 that the Mako drone will play a large role in the demonstrations.

"Mako continues to fly for various customers with all types of payloads," DeMarco said in an interview. Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems makes both the Valkyrie and Mako.

"It was designed to carry a 350-pound internal and/or 500-pound external payload, as well as 100-pound payloads on each wing," he said. "That includes electronic warfare or jamming equipment, infrared search and track sensors; and offensive and defensive weapons.

"Mako [is] a test bed, running a parallel path with the Valkyrie, so when the Valkyrie is ready, those payloads can more easily be ported over and integrated into Valkyrie because they've already been demonstrated in an unmanned platform," DeMarco said.

The Skyborg ACS is being constructed by Leidos, according to Defense News.

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

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