The "Boeing Airpower Teaming System" has taken the first flight for the pilotless combat jet of the Royal Australian Air Force.
The announcement of this historic first for Australia was made by both the air force and Boeing Australia, which is leading the development of this drone warplane. ATS will have an artificial intelligence brain and is also known as the "Loyal Wingman" aerial combat program.
Loyal Wingman is harnessing AI "to fly independently or in support of manned aircraft while maintaining safe distance between other aircraft." More than 35 Australian companies are supporting the program.
The flight tests for the drone included taxiing, ground handling performance and navigation checks ahead of takeoff. Once airborne, the wingman drone flew a predetermined route "at different speeds and altitudes to verify flight functionality" and operation.
"Boeing and Australia are pioneering fully integrated combat operations by crewed and uncrewed aircraft," said Leanne Caret, President and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security.
The drone will operate alongside manned fourth- and fifth-generation RAAF warplanes. Boeing said partnering manned fighters with swarms of unmanned combat drones that can either shoot down enemy planes or divert air-to-air missiles away from manned aircraft has the potential to "revolutionize the RAAF's air combat tactics playbook."
The Australian government has invested US$31 million in the Loyal Wingman program. The drone that flew last week is the first military airplane designed and made in Australia in over 50 years.
A model for the ATS was first unveiled Feb. 27, 2019, at the Australian International Airshow in Avalon, Victoria. Boeing delivered the first prototype to Australia in May 2020.
"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 Catherine Roberts, head of Air Force capability for the RAAF.
"The Loyal Wingman project is a pathfinder for the integration of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence to create smart human-machine teams; through this project, we are learning how to integrate these new capabilities to complement and extend air combat and other missions," said Roberts.
The drone is Boeing's "largest investment in an unmanned aircraft outside of the U.S."
Anywhere from four and 16 ATS drones will accompany piloted air force planes on combat sorties.
The drones will serve as wingmen to air force Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II stealth fighters, McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18A/B Hornets and F/A-18F Super Hornets, Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic warfare fighters, and Boeing P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine warfare planes.