Boeing successfully flies unmanned autonomous military 'wingman' aircraft that may become pilot's buddy

First test flight saw drone take off, follow orders, land by AI control


Boeing this week successfully completed its first official test flight of its autonomous uncrewed military airplane.

Nicknamed the Loyal Wingman, the 38-feet-long aircraft was able to autonomously whiz around the skies of the Australian outback crewless. Having said that, it was under the careful watch of a test pilot in a control station at the Woomera Range Complex, a military aerospace facility in South Australia, about 450km from Adelaide.

The eventual goal is to have one or more robot wingbots flying in formation with a human pilot in the lead, and using AI to perform a variety of tasks, from sensor sweeps to possibly even attack runs. But there's a long way to go.

The Wingman managed to take-off from an airstrip and flew along a planned route at various altitudes and speeds. The test wasn’t completely hands-off; the pilot was kept in-the-loop at all times, a spokesperson from Boeing told The Register. The robo-plane essentially took orders and filled in the gaps all by itself, we're told. You might call it a remote-control super-autopilot more than anything else.

“The test pilot sent the aircraft positive commands to move between flight phases, such as moving from different points in the test area and coming back to land," the spokesperson said. "The test pilot continuously monitored the flight and had the capability to change the aircraft’s flight path, altitude and speed. The test pilot was also in direct communication with air traffic control.”

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Although this latest test is a step up from its previous attempt, where the Loyal Wingman taxied around an airfield, it’s difficult to get a good grasp on how advanced the machine actually is and how far away the manufacturer is from its goal of flying an AI-powered aircraft capable of assisting pilots on missions and in battle. Boeing declined to say how long the test route was, how long the aircraft managed to stay in the air, and how fast it flew.

The aerospace giant hopes that the Loyal Wingman will eventually be capable of flying more than 2,000 nautical miles at a time. It will also come packed with sensors that will collect data to feed into systems that will provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, as well as tactical early warning.

But not this time. “The first flight was primarily focused on testing the aircraft’s aerodynamic performance and its ability to fly the mission autonomously. Later flights will test artificial intelligence capabilities,” the spokesperson said.

A Boeing Loyal Wingman Uncrewed Aircraft Completes its First Flight

The Loyal Wingman in the air ... Source: Boeing

Boeing will continue working with the Australian and US governments to develop its aircraft. It said it had renewed its contract with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) for another three years, and will also test the Loyal Wingman with the US Air Force under its Skyborg program. As such, Australia has now ordered three more of the Wingman drones at a cost of $115m.

“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." ®

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