Over the past few years, the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), with the support of commercial organizations, has been implementing the Skyborg program. Its goal is to create a promising multi-purpose unmanned aerial vehicle that can complement or replace tactical manned aircraft aviation. Currently, the Skyborg program is entering the real design phase.
At a new stage
Until the beginning of 2019, the Skyborg program was developed by AFRL independently and without the involvement of design organizations. In March last year, a request for information was issued, which became an actual invitation to participate. At that time, it was supposed to work according to the traditional method. Participating companies had to present their projects, and AFRL was going to choose the most successful for further development. Further approaches have changed.
By the end of 2019, AFRL had changed their views and rebuilt the architecture of the program. Now it is proposed to work out several hardware and software projects with an open architecture in parallel - their results can be combined and combined during the development of UAVs. The traditional idea of developing finished products by various contractors was abandoned.
A key component of the Skyborg program should be UAV control systems with a high degree of autonomy, capable of interacting with humans. On May 18, 2020, Leidos, which has extensive experience in the field of crewless equipment, became responsible for this area.
Almost at the same time, AFRL began accepting off-the-shelf platform aircraft projects for use in the Skyborg program. It was reported that in early July, the Laboratory will determine a list of contractors and issue contracts for the development of proposed projects. However, such orders have not yet appeared and the timing of their placement is unknown.
The expected contracts will stipulate the development of projects over the next five years. The maximum cost of the work of one contractor is $ 400 million. It is expected that all the main developers of unmanned vehicles will receive such contracts: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Kratos, etc.
Platforms and Automation
The Skyborg program provides for the creation of multi-purpose UAVs capable of supporting manned aircraft in one way or another or independently performing combat missions. A characteristic feature of such devices will be developed control systems with a high degree of autonomy and elements of artificial intelligence.
One of the most interesting ideas of the program is to offer survivability as a sacrifice of combat effectiveness. UAVs of a new type are initially considered to be vulnerable to enemy attacks and “consumed”. The loss of such a product will not be excessively expensive and will cost without human casualties - but it will be possible to use it in the most difficult and risky situations.
The principle of "expendability" affects the design requirements and individual units. In particular, it is proposed the use of short-life turbojet engines, providing sub- and / or supersonic flight. Such a power plant will give the UAV the necessary flight characteristics, but it will be cheap and easy to operate.
By order of AFRL, Leidos develops universal control equipment. This complex should provide UAV control in all modes, solving a variety of combat missions, etc. It is required to ensure the possibility of independent work, as well as the execution of the commands of the operator or the leader aircraft.
For Skyborg, a wide range of tasks is expected, which greatly complicates the development of computer systems and software. This leads to new problems. So, the dimensions, weight, power consumption and other parameters of the equipment from Leidos have not yet been determined. Accordingly, the developers of unmanned platforms have to make equipment with a margin of characteristics.
At the moment, the program proposes to make several drones of different shapes, but with close capabilities. As possible participants of Skyborg, including with the most serious prospects, several existing and developing aircraft from several companies are considered. They will have to carry various equipment and weapons. The use of integrated and suspended radar and optical means is proposed; internal and external suspension, etc. There are no stringent requirements in this context.
The result of the launched phase of the program will be the emergence of several experienced UAVs from different companies. Using unified control systems, they will differ in other components. Samples of this kind are invited to compare and draw conclusions. Both individual samples and the entire range can enter the series and into operation, depending on the results obtained.
Plans for the future
It is planned to spend about three years on the development, testing and development of several projects. Already in 2023, AFRL intends to begin the introduction of finished samples in the Air Force units. In the future, in the absence of serious difficulties, a wider development of such a technique is possible with obtaining real results, including in a combat setting.
It is assumed that Skyborg UAVs will be able to operate independently and in conjunction with manned aircraft. They will be able to carry out reconnaissance, strike at ground targets or conduct an air battle - depending on the capabilities of a particular model and emerging needs.
The fundamental possibility of using UAVs as a radio-controlled target for training pilots or in the form of barrage of ammunition is also considered. The last “function” can be used in the development of a design resource or, if necessary, the defeat of a particularly important goal, which regular weapons will not cope with.
In general, we are talking about universal technology that can complement or replace existing manned aircraft. In this regard, the most ambitious plans are being built. So, the Air Force Combat Command is already exploring the possibility of introducing Skyborg into squadron and wing structures. After 2025, such a technique can replace F-16 fighters of obsolete modifications. After 2030, similar processes will begin in relation to the heavy UAVs of the old types.
In recent years, as part of the AFRL programs, various aircraft manufacturers have developed a number of promising UAVs that can interact with manned aircraft. UAV concept Loyal Wingman ("Faithful follower") are successfully tested and show their potential.
The Skyborg program is based on other ideas, primarily in the area of control systems. At the same time, aircraft manufacturers and AFRL get the opportunity to combine fundamentally new solutions and accumulated experience. The result of this should be the emergence of one or more “slave” UAVs with wide capabilities of various kinds.
The presence of experience and a number of ready-made platforms is a positive factor that can accelerate work on a single program. However, its results directly depend on successes in creating a unified management system - and then on its integration into existing or developed platforms. Some of these tasks are not particularly difficult, while others can be problematic.
According to current plans, work on Skyborg will continue for several more years, and already in 2023 the Air Force will begin to master the finished equipment. Whether they manage to meet these deadlines is a big question. While it is impossible to exclude a change in the schedule or a revision of the objectives of the program. With confidence, we can only say that the US Air Force is seriously engaged in the subject of unmanned aerial vehicles capable of working independently or in conjunction with airplanes. Sooner or later, such an interest should lead to the appearance of combat-ready models and to rearmament.