Boeing’s autonomous Loyal Wingman makes debut flight

8th March 2021

 

The first flight of Boeing’s unmanned aircraft Loyal Wingman has taken place at the Woomera Range Complex in South Australia.Developed by Boeing in partnership with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), Loyal Wingman is the first military aircraft to be designed and manufactured in Australia in more than 50 years.

The vehicle is the prototype for Boeing’s Airpower Teaming System (ATS), envisioned as an AI-powered autonomous aerial platform that can assist other crewed and uncrewed aircraft in military operations.

Its maiden sortie saw Loyal Wingman complete a successful take-off under its own power before flying a pre-determined route at different speeds and altitudes to verify flight functionality and demonstrate the performance of the ATS design.“The Loyal Wingman’s first flight is a major step in this long-term, significant project for the Air Force and Boeing Australia, and we’re thrilled to be a part of the successful test,” said Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts, RAAF 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.”

In terms of military vehicle projects, Loyal Wingman’s development has been relatively rapid, evolving from the drawing board to debut flight in just three years. In total, three operational prototypes were initially set to be delivered to the RAAF from an automated production line at Boeing Australia’s Brisbane facility. Following the successful maiden flight on February 27th, Australia’s defence industry minister announced a further investment of A$115 million (£65m) to obtain three additional ATS aircraft.

“The Australian government’s continued investment in the innovative Loyal Wingman program will create jobs and opportunities for over 35 Australian suppliers and small businesses, including BAE Systems Australia, RUAG Australia, AME Systems and Ferra Engineering,” Boeing Australia, New Zealand & South Pacific president, Dr Brendan Nelson said in a statement.

Autonomous and AI-powered weapons have also been making news in the US, where a government-commissioned report has urged against a global ban on such systems. Headed by ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt, the National Security Commission on AI claimed that Russia and China would be unlikely to abide by any international agreement, and that AI-driven weapons platforms have the power to “compress decision time frames” where humans may be too slow to react in military situations. The report claims that AI will transform “all aspects of military affairs” and that the new arms race will be algorithmic rather than atomic.

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