Airforce Receives its First ‘Loyal Wingman’ Drone Prototype

Boeing photo
Boeing photo

Boeing has delivered the prototype of the drone-jet hybrid drone to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).

This drone is intended to use its artificial intelligence to undertake surveillance and reconnaissance and collect data while flying in support of fighter pilots in conflict situations.

The drone, delivered in Sydney, is the first of three that have been developed under Australia’s Loyal Wingman Advanced Development Program.

These Loyal Wingmen crewless aircraft will collect information that will be passed on to the pilots who will be flying fourth and fifth-generation fighter planes.

Boeing introduced its Airpower Teaming System at the Australian International Airshow at Avalon. (Boeing)
Boeing introduced its Airpower Teaming System at the Australian International Airshow at Avalon. (Boeing)

This drone is the first aircraft that has been designed and manufactured entirely in Australia in the last 50 years.

In a press release, Boeing said that this is the most substantial investment in an unmanned aircraft that the company has made outside of the US.

The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, said that the delivery of the unmanned aircraft was a historic moment for the country and for innovation in the Australian defense environment. He went on to say that the Loyal Wingman was intended to take a pivotal role in the RAAF’s critical capabilities to protect both Australia and its allies in years to come.

The Australian Government is investing around $40 million in the program, with Boeing as their partners. The prototype was unveiled at the Avalon Air Show in 2019.

The fact sheet on the Loyal Wingman unmanned aircraft states that the plane is 38 feet long and has a range of 2,000 nautical miles. It goes on to say that the drone will fly either on its own or in support of other aircraft but using its intelligence to maintain a safe distance from the crewed fighters.

Boeing said that the prototype was constructed using a digital engineering methodology that lent itself to simulating parts of the aircraft using computer models.

The vice president and general manager of Autonomous Systems for Boeing Defense, Space & Security, Kristin Robertson, said that Boeing is immensely proud to take this significant step forward in conjunction with the Royal Australian Air Force, as it will showcase the potential for unmanned units to team up and serve as a force multiplier.

She went on to say that Boeing is looking forward to the flight testing and proving the concept of unmanned teaming.  The Loyal Wingman will undertake ground tests now, followed by flight testing later in 2020.

She concluded by saying that moving the development of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System was particularly crucial to the company as they had identified other countries with identical mission requirements.

One of those countries is the United States. They are currently working to develop their Loyal Wingman program of unmanned fighting planes that think autonomously but fly in support of other fighters such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

One of the uses anticipated by the US is that the Loyal Wingman could fly forward of the crewed flight to gather vital intelligence to be passed back to the crewed planes.

The USAF has conducted tests at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, using the XQ-58A Valkyrie drone from Kratos Defense. The tests involved high altitude tests, where the drone was flown at much higher altitudes than before.

This drone is part of the USAF’s Low-Cost Attritable Strike Demonstration program.

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This program is designed to develop and manufacture unmanned aircraft that can be used as attack planes but are disposable and can be destroyed without a high cost to the air force.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE