Plans for Skyborg

A conceptual design for a low cost attritable unmanned combat aerial vehicle.
US Air Force Research Laboratory

The US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is working on fielding a prototype autonomous unmanned combat air vehicle in a programme called Skyborg.

An AFRL statement said a request for information was issued to industry in mid-March to conduct market research and concept of operations analysis, “to learn what is commercially available now as high technology readiness-level capabilities”.

Skyborg stood up as a fiscal year 2019-funded programme in October 2018 with the objective of fielding an early operational capability (EOC) prototype by the end of 2023. Skyborg programme manager Ben Tran said: “This is our first step in determining what the current state of the art is from a technology perspective and from a systems engineering perspective to provide that EOC capability …

We know there is heavy investment by our near-peer adversaries in artificial intelligence [AI] and autonomy in general. We know that when you couple autonomy and AI with systems like lowcost attritables, that can increase capability significantly and be a force multiplier for our Air Force.”

Matt Duquette, an AFRL Aerospace Systems Directorate engineer, commented: “Skyborg is a vessel for AI technologies that could range from rather simple algorithms to fly the aircraft and control them in airspace to the introduction of more complicated levels of AI to accomplish certain tasks or subtasks of the mission.”

The AFRL statement said the Skyborg programme will build on, “foundational work with AI shown with programmes such as Have Raider and the Auto Ground and Air Collision Avoidance systems”.

The AFRL has partnered with the Emerging Technologies Combined Test Force within the 412th Test Wing at Edwards Air Force Base, California to use what Tran called “small, fast-moving UAVs” to test AI and autonomy.

The AFRL said Skyborg will be a platform for the US Air Force to field an autonomous system that can serve as an iterative platform to facilitate AI development, prototyping, experimentation and fielding.