Autonomous Boeing Aircraft Makes Its Maiden Flight

6 months ago by Luke James

In what may be a major leap forward for the future of autonomous aircraft, ‘Loyal Wingman’, Boeing’s autonomous uncrewed fighter-style, jet-powered drone, has taken to the skies for the very first time in a historic test flight, carried out by Boeing Australia and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).

Loyal Wingman, which one year ago was just a concept, is the first military aircraft to be designed and manufactured in Australia for more than five decades and is the prototype for Boeing’s Airpower Teaming System (ATS), an AI-powered autonomous aerial platform that can assist crewed and uncrewed aircraft during military combat and reconnaissance missions.

The aircraft measures 11.6 metres in length and has a nautical mile range of 3,704 kilometres (or 2,300 miles). It is also capable of carrying weapons and providing protection for larger and more expensive manned fighter jets.

 

A Significant Project

The aircraft’s maiden flight saw it complete a successful independent take-off under its own power before flying a pre-planned route at different speeds and altitudes to prove flight functionality and demonstrate the performance of the ATS design. Prior to take-off, the aircraft also underwent a series of taxi tests that validated its ground handling, navigation, and control.

 

A CGI render of the ‘Loyal Wingman’ aircraft in flight
Image credit: Boeing Australia

 

The flight was described as a major step forward in what will be a long-term and significant project for both Boeing Australia and the RAAF.

Said Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts, the RAAF’s Head of Air Force Capability: “The Loyal Wingman project is a pathfinder for the integration of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence to create smart human-machine teams. Through this project, we are learning how to integrate these new capabilities to complement and extend air combat and other missions.”

 

From Concept to Cruising in Just Three Years

Compared to a typical military project, the development of the Loyal Wingman has been relatively quick—having gone from a drawing board concept to cruising in the sky in only three years. And again: even one year ago, the aircraft was still a concept and nothing had been built.

Three operational prototypes were originally scheduled to be delivered to the RAAF from an automated production line in Boeing Australia in Brisbane. Following the success of the maiden flight on Saturday, the 27th of February, the Australian defence ministry immediately announced a further AUD$115 million in investment funding to obtain three additional aircraft.

Australia isn’t the only nation investing in Boeing for its military aircraft. In December 2020, the United States Air Force (USAF) awarded contracts to Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, and Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems to build ‘SKYBORG’ prototypes as unmanned air vehicles for experimental purposes. These are due to be delivered by May 2021, with initial flight tests scheduled for July 2021.

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