The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has announced that its Skyborg Central Range System, or ACS, has successfully performed a flight in a General Atomics Avenger unmanned vehicle at Edwards Air Force Base. The Skyborg ACS is a hardware and software suite that acts as the “brain” of autonomous aircraft equipped with the system. The tests add more planes to the list of platforms Skyborg has successfully flown on, bringing the Air Force one step closer to a future in which aviators fly alongside the “loyal wingers” controlled by the Air Force. IA.
The Skyborg-controlled Avenger flew four and a half hours on June 24, 2021, during the Orange Flag 21-2 Large Force test event at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Orange Flag is a training event hosted by the 412th Test Wing three times a year that “focuses on technical integration and innovation across a wide range of technological readiness levels,” according to a press release from the Air Force. You can read more about this major testing event in this latest feature of ours.
The Avenger began its flight under the control of a human operator before being handed over to the Skyborg “pilot” at a safe altitude. A ground command and control station monitored the flight of the drone, during which Skyborg performed “a series of fundamental behaviors necessary to characterize the safe operation of the system”, including following navigation commands, flying in defined limits called “geo-fences”, adhering to safety flight envelopes and demonstration of “coordinated maneuvers”.
The Avenger made its first flight in 2009 as the jet successor to General Atomics’ Predator / Reaper family, with a speed greater than that of its family members, a flight time of 20 hours, characteristics not very observable and much higher speed. 50,000 foot flight ceiling. It can carry weapons inside in a weapons bay and outside. Only a handful of Avenger airframes have been produced and are used primarily out of public view and as test bed aircraft.
In 2017, General Atomics confirmed the sale of a single Avenger drone to the Air Force, but “up to seven” additional cells were sold to an undisclosed US government entity. However, General Atomics had previously considered sales to unspecified international customers. Most details of the operational use of the Avenger are kept confidential.
In December 2020, General Atomics, along with Boeing and Kratos, had been awarded a contract to supply unmanned aircraft to the Skyborg program to actually transport the systems developed under this program in future tests. Previously, it was unclear what design the company planned to deliver to the Air Force.
The Avenger flown during tests at Orange Flag was designated as an MQ-20, according to the Air Force. This is a curious nomenclature given that the US military has already assigned the location “Q-20” in its aircraft designation system to the AeroVironment RQ-20 Puma AE. The service also previously applied the YQ-11 designation to the Avenger, which it used in various test roles, which also conflicts with the RQ-11 nomenclature for the AeroVironment Raven. Of course, unusual and out of sequence designations are not unheard of, especially for experimental and test aircraft.
The Avenger’s flight to Orange Flag was part of AFRL’s Larger Autonomous Attritable Aircraft Experimentation (AAAx), a program that previously saw the Skyborg ACS tested on board an unmanned Kratos UTAP-22 Mako aircraft. The AAAx program appears to aim to eventually bring autonomous aerial vehicles into service that are inexpensive enough to operate in environments where there is a high risk of aircraft loss, but which are also reusable.
As part of this goal, the Skyborg program is developing an artificial intelligence-based ‘computer brain’ that could potentially autonomously control ‘loyal wingers’ drones or even more unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UCAVs). advances. AFRL wants the system to be able to perform tasks such as takeoff and landing, and even make combat decisions itself based on situational variables.
The Air Force envisions Skyborg-equipped UAVs to operate both fully autonomously and in networked groups while being attached via data links to manned aircraft, all controlled by what AFRL calls an “ACS”. modular that can pilot, navigate and communicate autonomously, and possibly integrate other advanced capabilities. “Wingmen equipped with Skyborg and equipped with their own pods or sensor systems could easily and quickly add extended capabilities by connecting to manned planes flying in their field of vision.