UPDATED: The Boeing Airpower Teaming System (ATS) uncrewed aerial system (UAS) being developed for the RAAF’s Loyal Wingman program made a successful first flight at Woomera on February 27.
The flight comes after a series of successful engine tests and low speed taxi tests at Amberley, and high-speed taxi tests at Woomera. It was pushed back from a planned December 2020 timetable primarily due to the fluctuating status of state borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and unfavourable weather conditions at the remote test facility in recent weeks.
Development of the ATS is being partially funded to the tune of A$155 million by the RAAF under its DEF 6114 Loyal Wingman development program which will include three test aircraft. If successful, the program may lead to a requirement for an uncrewed combat capability to augment manned fighters, electronic attack aircraft, and high-value assets such as the E-7A Wedgetail and KC-30A MRTT.
Additional funding of $115 million was announced on March 2 following an government commitment to fund the development of three additional aircraft.
“The Australian government’s continued investment in the innovative Loyal Wingman program will create jobs and opportunities for over 35 Australian suppliers and small businesses, including BAE Systems Australia, RUAG Australia, AME Systems and Ferra Engineering,” Boeing Australia, New Zealand & South Pacific president, Dr Brendan Nelson said in a statement.
Boeing says the additional funding will support the maturation of the aircraft design, evolution of current and future payloads, and create the sustainment system for the aircraft in operations.
“In addition to progressing the air vehicle design and support system, we will further develop the aircraft’s mission system including advanced AI decision-making capabilities and new payloads,” Boeing ATS program director, Dr Shane Arnott said. “Continued digital engineering and significantly expanded live testing of the system will provide RAAF and Boeing with the ability to jointly take the concept to the next level, activities that are critical for us to rapidly understand how the Airpower Teaming System can be employed in the future battlespace.”
In a separate statement, the RAAF’s Head of Air Force Capability, AVM Cath Roberts added, “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. The Loyal Wingman project is a pathfinder for the integration of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence to create smart human-machine teams.”
Revealed at the 2019 Avalon Airshow, the ATS features low observable shaping, a single engine derived from a business jet, an internal fuselage weapons/sensor bay, and detachable nose sections that can carry various sensors or electronic warfare equipment.
“Boeing and Australia are pioneering fully integrated combat operations by crewed and uncrewed aircraft,” Boeing Defense, Space & Security President and CEO Leanne Caret said. “We’re honoured to be opening this part of aviation’s future with the Royal Australian Air Force, and we look forward to showing others how they also could benefit from our loyal wingman capabilities.”
Apart from the RAAF’s Loyal Wingman program, the ATS is expected to be developed into several different versions and be offered for similar programs currently underway in the US and UK, including the USAF’s Skyborg program.