Although the technology seems like it comes from "a galaxy far, far away," Air Force pilots will soon be taking to the skies alongside R2-D2- like wingmen; autonomous and paired to the pilot's aircraft.
Skyborg is an autonomy-focused capability that will enable the Air Force to operate and sustain low-cost, teamed aircraft driven by artificial intelligence that can thwart adversaries with quick, decisive actions in contested environments. These unmanned aerial systems are meant to operate alongside manned fighters and will utilize machine learning technology to increase combat capability as they train alongside their piloted partner.
These wingman aircraft could fly ahead of manned planes to extend the pair's sensor coverage to increase battlespace awareness. They can fire weapons at targets designated by their human wingmen, and a swarm of automated wingmen could protect piloted aircraft by absorbing missile shots from enemy forces.
Air Force policy stipulates that people are always responsible for lethal decision-making. Accordingly, Skyborg will not replace human pilots. Instead, it will provide them with key data to support rapid, informed decisions.
"Ever since "Star Wars" first debuted, this idea of being able to fly with autonomy to support you, and cute little beeps and squeaks right, it has just caught the imagination," said Dr. Will Roper, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics. "It's time to make that real."
Attendees watch a video about the Skyborg Vanguard Program during the Air Warfare Symposium, Feb. 28, 2020. Skyborg is an unmanned aircraft focused competency that will allow the Air Force to employ a team of artificially intelligent aircraft to quickly thwart adversaries in combat. Skyborg will not replace pilots but will provide crucial and prompt data to help the pilot make informed and accurate decisions. (PHOTO // KENNETH MCNULTY)
Roper said he's excited for the R2-D2 program, a name he uses to refer to Skyborg.
Speaking to the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in June, Roper divulged that conversations with world-renowned experts at Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed that artificial intelligence, in its current form, is fragile.
"It's (AI) fine when it's helping you with entertainment related functions. If your app crashes and the AI gives you the wrong choice on what movie or song to play next, well no big deal," Roper said. "But on the battlefield an adversary will be there trying to thwart and confound that AI and it's very easy to do."
Roper added that the Air Force is going to need a new form of AI that is hardened against an adversary, and research is underway. He expressed the need to accelerate and if done skillfully, the Air Force won't just be accelerating for the Defense Department; this kind of hardened AI is also needed in the commercial sector for delivery drones and improving self-driving cars.
Dr. Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, discusses "The Future Air Force, Faster, Smarter: The Next Gear" during the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., Sept. 16, 2019. One innovative project the Air Force is employing is Skyborg, an unmanned aircraft focused competency that will allow the Air Force to employ a team of artificially intelligent aircraft to quickly thwart adversaries in combat. (U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO // STAFF SGT. CHAD TRUJILLO)
"The roots of the Air Force are all about breaking boundaries and doing new things and I think we may have forgotten that a little bit," Roper said. "In the wake of the Soviet Union collapse, we didn't have that adversary pushing us. We ought to be doing new things all the time and everywhere and AI autopilot, or wingman or R2-D2 is something new. I can't wait to get it out on the battlefield."
Skyborg is one of three Vanguard programs identified in 2019 as part of the Air Force Science and Technology 2030 Strategy. The Air Force plans to channel more resources into the programs and speed up their development.
The Air Force Research Laboratory announced the new strategy last year. It prioritizes demands on time, space and complexity in future conflicts across all domains. The strategy aligns with the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy and lays out a path forward for the Air Force Science and Technology ecosystem to deliver warfighting capabilities at the speed of relevance and necessity.
The Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie is an experimental stealthy unmanned combat aerial vehicle designed and built for the United States Air Force Low Cost Attritable Strike Demonstrator program, under the USAF Research Laboratory's Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology project portfolio. (PHOTO // AFRL)
In July, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center awarded multiple indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contracts to The Boeing Co., General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems, Inc. and Northrop Grumman Systems Corp. These initial awards will establish a vendor pool that will continue to compete for up to $400 million in subsequent delivery orders in support of the Skyborg Vanguard Program.
"Because autonomous systems can support missions that are too strenuous or dangerous for manned crews, Skyborg can increase capability significantly and be a force multiplier for the Air Force," said Brig. Gen. Dale White, program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft, who, along with Brig. Gen. Heather Pringle, Air Force Research Laboratory commander, serves as the leadership for the Skyborg program. "We have the opportunity to transform our warfighting capabilities and change the way we fight and the way we employ air power."
An illustration depicting the future integration of the Air Force enabling fusion warfare, where huge sets of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data are collected, analyzed by artificial intelligence and utilized by Airmen, their autonomous wingmen and the joint force in a seamless process to stay many steps ahead of an adversary. (ILLUSTRATION // AFRL)
"Autonomy technologies in Skyborg's portfolio will range from simple play-book algorithms to advanced team decision making and will include on-ramp opportunities for artificial intelligence technologies," Pringle said. "This effort will provide a foundational government reference architecture for a family of layered, autonomous, and open-architecture unmanned aerial systems."
The Vanguards are also introducing a novel early partnership between AFLCMC and AFRL due to the need to quickly identify cutting edge technology and transition it directly into the hands of the warfighter.
"The greatest technological edge is for naught if the warfighter can't use it on the battlefield. That makes the partnership between AFRL and AFLCMC so vital to this program. We can't allow bureaucratic speed bumps to interfere with our mandate to deliver," White said.
Just as the last generation of pilots had the instincts for stealth, Roper believes, the next generation will have the instincts for this, previously nonexistent, type of algorithmic warfare on future battlefields.
"This next generation of pilot is not going to be ready to hand the reins over to R2-D2, but neither will they be willing to go into combat without R2-D2, if R2-D2 is available," Roper said. "Our pilots are the best and they will continue to be the best if we give this technology, it will take their game into a completely different dimension."