Australia to build ‘independently thinking’ drones

Posted at 10:01 PM, Feb 26, 2019

Think of it as R2D2 getting his own X-wing fighter.

Boeing Australia on Wednesday announced plans to make a jet drone with artificial intelligence that can act as a “loyal wingman” for manned jet fighters.

The drone’s software will enable it to fly independently or in support of manned aircraft while maintaining safe distance between other aircraft, Boeing said in a statement on what it calls the “Airpower Teaming System.”

The 38-foot-long, single-engine drone with a range of more than 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) will be able to engage in electronic warfare as well as intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions and swap quickly between those roles, according to Boeing.

“Our newest addition to Boeing’s portfolio will truly be a force multiplier as it protects and projects air power,” Kristin Robertson, vice president and general manager of Boeing Autonomous Systems, said in the statement.

The company showed off a model of the drone, dubbed the “Loyal Wingman — Advanced Development Program,” at the Australia International Airshow in Melbourne on Wednesday, with an introduction from Australian Minister of Defense Christopher Pyne.

Accompanying animations showed three of the prospective drones flying alongside a Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18 fighter jet as well as an E-7 Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft.

Air Marshal Leo Davies, chief of the RAAF, hinted at how a drone with artificial intelligence would interact with human pilots in an interview with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute published Wednesday.

“We can program it to learn, but it learns linearly, it is not emotional and it is in many respects, in an air combat sense, quite inflexible,” Davies is quoted as saying.

“When we look at a pilot’s ability to assess the situation, that brings with it an amount of emotion and creativity that allows us to be agile.

“We need the flexibility and agility of the human meshed with the speed of a machine. When we put those together, we’ve got a quite amazing outcome,” Davies said.

Defense Export Strategy

Boeing said it would build the concept aircraft in Australia, with an eye to exporting to allied countries once production becomes possible.

“The Boeing Airpower Teaming System provides a transformational capability in terms of defense, and our customers — led by Australia — effectively become partners on the program with the ability to grow their own sovereign capabilities to support it, including a high-tech workforce,” Marc Allen, the president of Boeing International, said in the company’s statement.

Building the drones in Australia and selling them abroad would be in line with Canberra’s Defense Export Strategy, a 10-year-plan introduced a year ago and aimed at making Australia one of the world’s top 10 defense suppliers while building a manufacturing base at home.

“Exports will provide our defense industry with greater certainty of future investment and support high-end manufacturing jobs for Australians for generations to come,” the government said.

The high-tech drones would be the latest in a line of modern acquisitions for Australia’s air force.

The RAAF accepted its first F-35 Joint Strike Fighters last year and plans to have 72 of the stealth jets active by 2023. It also expects to have 15 P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol and anti-submarine aircraft in operation by 2023.

Both those platforms could partner in missions with AI drones.

The first flight of the drone is planned for 2020, Boeing said.

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