As part of the Autonomous Attritable Aircraft Experiment (AAAx) under the US Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) SKYBORG Vanguard programme, the service’s 96th Test Wing conducted three test flights of the Autonomy Core System (ACS) – the ‘brain’ of the autonomous aircraft – from Tyndall AFB between 29 April and 5 May.
The objective of the SKYBORG programme is to develop low-coast unmanned aircraft to enhance combat capability by teaming manned and unmanned assets in air combat. The ACS operates by taking basic commands from a ground or airborne source, then deciding on optimal flight path and control settings to comply with the command. With this series of tests, autonomy moves a step further towards reality.
“The execution of this flight test is a great milestone for our closely integrated development and acquisition teams. Safely executing this test and providing the knowledge needed to advance the technology lies at the heart of what we do. And, as always, we’re highly motivated to help bring war-winning technology to the next fight,” commented the Commander of 96th TW, Brig Gen Scott Cain.
Ground controllers provided command input for the recent test series, but future plans envisage manned-unmanned teaming, with commands sent to the ACS from an airborne F-16. These commands could be broader in scope – for instance, tasking the unmanned system to locate, detect, track and report potential targets.
“This test is a significant step toward teaming manned and unmanned aircraft in combat in the not-too-distant future,” stated Maj Nathan McCaskey, the project pilot for AAAx. “Unmanned aircraft using the autonomy system developed for this experiment could go places where manned fighters can’t go, providing sensor information to manned teammates, increasing the power projection capability of the Air Force.”
The test series demonstrated the building blocks of autonomous capability, with ACS showing proficiency in basic aviation abilities and responding to commands while sharing airspace with up to four manned aircraft.