The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) just received a shiny new toy, and it looks oh-so-good: the "Loyal Wingman" combat AI drone by Boeing.
Drones have already been a part of military equipment, but Boeing's Loyal Wingman is different, and it's impressive. It's a great day for Australia, as this is its first in-house aircraft in half a century.
Not a toy drone
Australia's Loyal Wingman is anything but a toy, though. It's large enough so that it can accompany manned aircraft, and it's meant to improve the RAAF's power in defending its territory.
"This a truly historic moment for our country and for Australian defense innovation," said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. "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."
Unlike regular military drones, Boeing's Loyal Wingman uses artificial intelligence (AI) to pilot the drone, instead of being controlled remotely. There is still some manual control, but this will be done through a minimal interface rather than a bulky conventional controller.
Thanks to our #LoyalWingman teammates for helping us deliver the first military aircraft in 50+ years to be designed, developed and manufactured in Australia. We’re proud to support @AusAirForce with you.— Boeing Australia (@BoeingAustralia) May 5, 2020
The new drone was presented just on Tuesday morning to the RAAF and is but one of three prototypes that are currently being developed for this defense purpose. These drones are part of Boeing's Airpower Teaming System (ATS), and part of the Loyal Wingman Advanced Development Program.
The RAAF will now carry out flight tests and demos to see how best to integrate these drones into their forces, so as to keep pilots safe by placing unmanned lower cost assets on the front lines during risky fights.
"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," explained Jerad Hayes, Boeing’s senior director for autonomous aviation and technology.
The first flight will be carried out later this year, and in the meantime "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]," said Shane Arnott, Boeing’s ATS program director.
"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."
Air Forces around the world could end up benefitting from such a drone.