The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has announced that its Skyborg autonomy core system, or ACS, successfully completed a flight aboard a General Atomics Avenger unmanned vehicle at Edwards Air Force Base. The Skyborg ACS is a hardware and software suite that acts as the “brain” of autonomous aircraft equipped with the system. The tests add more aircraft to the list of platforms Skyborg has successfully flown on, bringing the Air Force closer to a future in which airmen fly alongside AI-controlled “loyal wingmen.”
The Skyborg-controlled Avenger flew four two and a half hours on June 24, 2021, during the Orange Flag 21-2 Large Force Test Event at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Orange Flag is a training event held by the 412th Test Wing three times a year that “focuses on technical integration and innovation across a breadth of technology readiness levels,” according to an Air Force press release. You can read more about this major testing event in this past feature of ours.
The Avenger started its flight under the control of a human operator before being handed off to the Skyborg “pilot” at a safe altitude. A command and control station on the ground monitored the drone’s flight, during which Skyborg executed “a series of foundational behaviors necessary to characterize safe system operation” including following navigational commands, flying within defined boundaries known as “geo-fences,” adhering to safe flight envelopes, and demonstrating “coordinated maneuvering.”
The Avenger’s flight at Orange Flag was part of the AFRL’s larger Autonomous Attritable Aircraft Experimentation (AAAx), a program that has already seen the Skyborg ACS tested aboard a Kratos UTAP-22 Mako unmanned aircraft. The AAAx program appears to be aimed at eventually fielding autonomous air vehicles that are low-cost enough to operate in environments where there is a high chance of aircraft being lost, but are also reusable.
As part of that goal, the Skyborg program is developing an artificial intelligence-driven “computer brain” that could eventually autonomously control “loyal wingman” drones or even more advanced unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs). The AFRL wants the system to be able to perform tasks such as taking off and landing, to even making decisions on its own in combat based on situational variables.
The Air Force envisions Skyborg-equipped UAVs to operate both completely autonomously and in networked groups while tethered via datalinks to manned aircraft, all controlled by what the AFRL calls a “modular ACS that can autonomously aviate, navigate, and communicate, and eventually integrate other advanced capabilities.” Skyborg-equipped wingmen fitted with their own pods or sensor systems could easily and rapidly add extended capabilities by linking to manned aircraft flying within line-of-sight of them.
After the program was first revealed in 2019, the Air Force’s then-Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper stated he wanted to see operational demonstrations within two years. The latest test flight of the Skyborg-equipped Avenger shows the service has clearly hit that benchmark.
The General Atomics Avenger was used in experiments with another autonomy system in 2020, developed as part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment (CODE) program that sought to develop drones that could demonstrate “collaborative autonomy,” or the ability to work cooperatively.
Brigadier General Dale White, Skyborg Program Executive Officer says that the successful Skyborg ACS implementation aboard an Avenger demonstrates the Air Force’s commitment to remaining at the forefront of aerospace innovation. “This type of operational experimentation enables the Air Force to raise the bar on new capabilities, made possible by emerging technologies,” said White, “and this flight is a key milestone in achieving that goal.”