The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in partnership with one of the leading aircraft manufacturers, Boeing, unveiled the working prototype of an AI combat drone called the Loyal Wingman on 5th May 2020. This unmanned aircraft is collectively part of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System (ATS). Loyal Wingman makes use of advanced artificial intelligence to not only assist manned aircraft but to fly and make decisions independently.

A cost-effective solution

The Loyal Wingman is made to assist pilots with a range of aerial operations. The UAV can perform surveillance, reconnaissance, early warning systems, and AI support. The Wingman drones would fly in a collective group of three as the ATS and thereby work as an airborne extension of the manned aircraft. This is said to be highly effective in tactical missions and averting risks to manned aircraft. The idea is to make the drones exceptionally affordable as the possibility of losing one or more drones in the air has to be accounted for. Boeing has not yet released any official numbers on how much will one Wingman drone cost. The wings of the drone are built using just two composite pieces. They are made using an advanced resin-infusion process. Most of the drone is designed using this similar process resulting in a lighter, durable, and low-cost UAV.

The drone, 38 feet long, can reportedly fly more than 2,000 nautical miles. The way Wingman can prove to be a game-changer is using its AI-guided autonomy. Having the ATS in the air can free up small navigational and tactical hurdles for the manned pilot which would be taken care of the drone instead. The company said that the AI could be programmed to learn. But machine learning is linear and in a tactical scenario, they require the flexibility and the agility of a human pilot. Combining the drone’s AI and a pilot’s flexibility, the Wingman drone can prove to be a robust defense solution in less than half the cost.

Loyal Wingman drone ATS
Image source: BOEING

The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, stated that the Loyal Wingman drones would help in securing the costlier fighter jets, pilots, and other high-value assets. Additionally, the Prime Minister added the effectiveness of this project post the coronavirus pandemic.

“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 in a statement.

The Australian government has invested nearly $40 million into this project. Also, this is the first aircraft to be fully made in Australia in the last 50 years. The Loyal Wingman will not only assist RAAF aircraft but a great deal of it will be customized for export.

Modular Nose

One striking feature of the drone is its replaceable nose. The snout of the drone can be interchanged between missions based on the requirement of sensors packages. The reason for this being so significant is the drone’s multi-functionality while its core body remains the same. The nose cone of the drone has about 9,000 cubic inches of space to carry any form of payload or sensor packages. As three of these Wingman drones work collectively, each of these drones could have different sensors or payloads attached at the front.

Loyal Wingman drone Boeing
Image source: BOEING

This could help in greatly extending the functionality of the traditional jet. Instead of having all kinds of sensors crammed into a single drone, the ATS places them inside swappable modules in multiple drones. Therefore, a manned aircraft, with the help of the modular ATS, can perform surveillance, navigation, and tactical operations all at once. This opens several possibilities for foreign operators. This form of open design could help these operators engineer and design their own payload for the drone. Having a customizable fuselage would greatly help in the export of this project as well.

First Flight in 2020

The physicality of this project is still under continuous testing. However, most of the development of this project has been completed in a virtual setting. The company had created a “digital twin” or a virtual version of the Loyal Wingman for software and AI development. The digital version of the drone is an extremely detailed version of it in a virtual space. Boeing has used this virtual model under simulations and has also used its software in physical flights. Thus, this has greatly cut the time and money required to develop such a highly intelligent UAV. This project was announced 14 months ago and a prototype is already being prepped for flight. The first official test flight of the ATS is expected to take place later in 2020. Although, the Loyal Wingman can go into full-scale mass production in about 5 years from now.

If tested successfully, the ATS will become a strong proof of concept. The Wingman drone, that can behave exactly like manned fighter jets, can be said to revolutionize combat drones as a whole in the next decade.