Boeing Australia has built the first of three Loyal Wingman aircraft, which will serve as the foundation for the Boeing Airpower Teaming System being developed for the global defense market. Credit: Boeing.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called it “a truly historical moment for our country and for Australian defense innovation.”

We are speaking of course of Boeing’s roll out of the first of three “Loyal Wingman” autonomous drones for the Australian Air Force.

“The Loyal Wingman will be pivotal to exploring the critical capabilities our Air Force needs to protect our nation and its allies into the future,” said Morrison.

The drones, which Boeing calls the Airpower Teaming System, are part of the Loyal Wingman Advanced Development Program, Valerie Insinna of Defense News reported.

Over a series of flight tests and demonstrations, the RAAF hopes to figure out how to best integrate drones with fighter jets and other combat aircraft, allowing the air force to keep pilots safe by putting lower cost unmanned assets at risk during a fight.

“Autonomy is a big element of this, as well as the incorporation of artificial intelligence. Those two elements combined enable us to support existing forces,” said Jerad Hayes, Boeing’s senior director for autonomous aviation and technology.

According to Defense News, the ATS is semi-autonomous, meaning that fighter pilots will not have to remotely control it, said Shane Arnott, Boeing’s ATS program director.

“When you are teaming, say with a Super Hornet, they don’t have the luxury during combat maneuvers or operations to be remotely piloting another aircraft while doing their own,” he said.

The drones will be able to engage in electronic warfare as well as intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions and swap quickly between those roles, according to CNN.

The aircraft delivered in Sydney on Tuesday is the first aircraft “to be designed, engineered and manufactured in Australia in more than 50 years,” Boeing said.

Prime Minister Morrison said the drones will protect the country’s pricier combat aircraft like F-35 stealth fighters and their pilots in the future, and drone production will help with a current crisis, fighting the effects of the coronavirus, CNN reported.

“The Loyal Wingman program has helped support around 100 high-tech jobs in Australia. Such projects will be critical to bolster growth and support jobs as the economy recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic,” Morrison said.

The Australian government says it has invested about US$40 million into the project, CNN reported. The Australian government calls the Boeing-RAAF tie-up “a partnership,” but has note provided specifics on actual ownership of the prototypes.

According to Defense News, one big technical question still remains: How much data should be transferred from the ATS to the cockpit of the manned aircraft controlling it, and when does that turn into information overload?

That question is one Boeing wants to answer more definitively once ATS makes its first flight later this year and moves into its experimentation phase, Arnott said.

“There’s a lot for us to figure out [on] what’s that right level of information feed and direction. One of the great benefits of working with the Royal Australian Air Force is having the real operators [give feedback],” he said.

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“We don’t have all the answers yet. We have a lot of understanding through our surrogate simulator and surrogate testing that we’re doing, but we will prove that out.”

According to Flight Global, the ATS comes with a 2.6m (8.5ft)-long modular nose cone that has a volume of more than 1.47 cbm (52 cb-ft). Because the aircraft has an open systems electronics architecture, operators can quickly swap in and out modular nose cones with different payloads, such as various intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance cameras. 

In broad terms, a controller in another aircraft, such as an officer in the back seat of a Boeing EA-18G Growler, would use the manned-unmanned teaming system to signal mission intent to the loyal wingman, letting the artificial intelligence system determine specifics, such as navigating to a destination.

The system would also have safety protocols to ensure loyal wingmen keep a safe distance from controlling aircraft, Flight Global reported.

The company declines to give specific performance details or the price. Previously, it said it would offer “fighter-like performance” and a 2,000 nm (3,700 km) range.

At the Melbourne Airshow 15 months ago, then-RAAF Air Marshal Leo Davies, hinted at how a drone with artificial intelligence would interact with human pilots in an interview with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, CNN reported.

“We can program it to learn, but it learns linearly, it is not emotional and it is in many respects, in an air combat sense, quite inflexible,” Davies was quoted as saying.

“When we look at a pilot’s ability to assess the situation, that brings with it an amount of emotion and creativity that allows us to be agile.

“We need the flexibility and agility of the human meshed with the speed of a machine. When we put those together, we’ve got a quite amazing outcome,” Davies said.

Jane’s earlier reported that more than 20 companies are supporting Boeing Australia in this effort, with design, development, and manufacturing of the prototypes being carried out across three undisclosed Australian states.