Airbus shows off uncrewed AI-powered Wingman for fighter pilots

I feel the need, the need for ... a Euro-made military drone

Updated AI-piloted drones that accompany and assist human-piloted fighter jets are very much on military minds – and Airbus is showing off its take on the technology. 

The aerospace giant was at the International Aerospace Exhibition (ILA) in Berlin this week with a full-scale model of its Wingman drone – an "unmanned escort for manned fighter jets." As many countries are envisioning, autonomous drones can act as support for human pilots by carrying out reconnaissance, refueling, acting as a radar platform, or even attacking human targets.

"The German Air Force has expressed a clear need for an unmanned aircraft flying with and supporting missions of its manned fighter jets before the Future Combat Air System will be operational in 2040," Airbus Defence and Space CEO Michael Schoellhorn explained in a statement. "Our Wingman concept is the answer."


Flying the unfriendly skies … A rendering of Airbus' Wingman concept drone – Click to enlarge

Wingman is designed to carry a number of different loadouts, with optional sensors, connectivity, "teaming solutions" and armaments available to the unmanned aircraft. Tasks can range from reconnaissance to striking targets or improving operations in low-visibility environments, Airbus claimed. 

Of course, the aircraft won't be making targeting determinations or launching attacks on its own (yet) – pilots in crewed aircraft will control Wingman as "command fighters" who will have final decision-making authority. 

The level of autonomy, and details on how pilots control and interact with Wingman, were all left out of Airbus's statement. The Register asked for more information and will fill in the gaps when we hear back. 

And while the German Air Force is mentioned as having expressed an interest in Wingman, it's not clear at all whether the Luftwaffe has any plans to test it, much less field the thing. Schoellhorn's statements don't help either – the CEO only said Wingman's development will mean Airbus "ultimately can offer the German Air Force an affordable solution with the performance it needs." Whether a deal is in place wasn't specified.

It's still early in Wingman's lifecycle, though, and Airbus also wanted to make clear that the model on display at the ILA this week is a concept – not quite reflective of future Wingmen. 

"As with 'show cars,' not all of what is on display may find its way into series production," Airbus stressed. "In this aspect, the model on display at ILA Berlin will serve as a foundation and catalyst to drive the design requirements for each generation of the Wingman." 

In other words, don't get too excited about the highway to the danger zone: we're still on the on-ramp. ®

Updated to add

An Airbus spokesperson got back to us with some more detail on the Wingman concept. They told us:

  • A command fighter will be able to task several unmanned assets. We are talking about single digit formations.
  • The foreseen Manned Unmanned Teaming Intelligence will allow for high level tasking, as envisioned for this Wingman. The pilot will give command tasks, but the execution will be done autonomously by the unmanned asset. Any kinetic or non-kinetic effect will be authorized by a human in the loop.
  • The Wingman Project is Airbus's concept of a next-generation, high-performance autonomous collaborative platform. It is currently a self-funded Airbus effort to pioneer the technologies that could enable the entry-into-service of such a capability in the early 2030 timeframe, in order to initially operate alongside current-generation fighter aircraft (e.g. Eurofighter).
  • Airbus is currently in discussions with Germany and Spain about this concept. So far no programme has been launched.

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