U.S. Air Force takes next step toward autonomous combat aircraft

A Skyborg conceptual design for a low cost attritable Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle. (Air Force Research Laboratory artwork)

The U.S. Air Force has taken another important step towards the development of autonomous combat aircraft under the program, known as Skyborg.

The 412th Test Wing’s Emerging Technologies Combined Test Force conducted an autonomous test flight at Edwards Air Force Base, California, July 25. The flight’s mission was to test a software suite designed to make unmanned aerial vehicle flight safer.

The TACE test is part of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Skyborg program. The Skyborg program is a developing software tool that allows engineers and researchers to develop autonomous capabilities.

The Air Force Office of Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation at the Air Force Research Laboratory is working on fielding a prototype Autonomous, Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle as an Early Operational Capability as early as 2023.

The TACE safety net programming sits between a vehicle’s safety critical control system and its mission system. Proven algorithms keep the plane within safe bounds defined before takeoff. Jessen said, the idea is to let the autonomous test aircraft fly itself out of the safety bounds; the TACE program would then take over control of the airplane and take it to a safe point.

Skyborg’s TACE complements AFRL’s previous work with artificial intelligence used with programs such as the Automatic Ground and Air Collision Avoidance Systems, which have been proven to have saved lives.

Earlier this year, ET-CTF conducted a TACE test on a smaller, lower-performance aircraft. That earlier test proved that the program works on a slower aircraft, one that flew at 30 knots. After today’s test, ET-CTF will eventually equip TACE on even larger, more powerful, full-size aircraft.

“Ultimately this is going to be our safety net for future autonomous testing, we hope to be testing autonomy that does air combat-type maneuvers and TACE is fundamental to being able to allow us to do that safely and effectively,” Jessen said.

Engineers prepare an unmanned jet-powered aircraft for a flight test at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., July 25. Photo by Giancarlo Casem
Engineers prepare an unmanned jet-powered aircraft for a flight test at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., July 25. Photo by Giancarlo Casem

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