The U.S. Air Force has selected three defense companies to produce unmanned aerial vehicle prototypes for its Skyborg program, which will pair a drone guided by artificial intelligence with a human piloting a fighter jet.
The service last week awarded contracts to Boeing Co., $25.7 million; General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, $14.3 million; and Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems, $37.8 million. Each will build a drone within a 24-month period, according to an Air Force release. The service did not specify how many prototype vehicles each company should produce and did not provide design specification criteria.
"This award is a major step forward for our game-changing Skyborg capability," Brig. Gen. Dale White, Program Executive Officer for Fighters and Advanced Aircraft, said in the release. "We will experiment to prove out this technology and, to do that, we will aggressively test and fly to get this capability into the hands of our warfighters."
White and Brig. Gen. Heather Pringle, Air Force Research Laboratory commander, co-lead the Skyborg program.
The service expects first deliveries of the prototypes in May 2021, with flight tests beginning that July, the release states.
The Air Force launched the bidding process for Skyborg last May. In July, the service chose Boeing, General Atomics, Kratos and Northrop Grumman to move forward on the program, while also competing for the indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract -- estimated to be worth up to $400 million.
In September, the Air Force expanded its pool of competitors for multiple components of the program, including software development, weapons, sensors and more, according to Defense News. Those vendors include AeroVironment Inc., Autodyne LLC, BAE System Controls Inc., Blue Force Technologies Inc., Fregata Systems Inc., Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, NextGen Aeronautics Inc., Sierra Technical Services, and Wichita State University.
It was not immediately clear whether Northrop remains tied to the program, though the Air Force's latest announcement suggests a down-select from the original four vendors.
Skyborg is one of three initiatives under the service's Vanguard Program for rapid prototyping and development of new technologies it can leverage for multiple operations. The Vanguard Program brings together the research lab and the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center to "quickly identify cutting-edge technology and transition directly into the hands of the warfighter," according to the service.
The autonomous Skyborg AI program is intended for use in reusable unmanned aerial vehicles in a manned-unmanned teaming mission. The drones are considered "attritable," or cheap enough that they can be destroyed without significant cost.
The Air Force has already conducted multiple tests with Kratos' XQ-58A Valkyrie drone as part of the service's Low-Cost Attritable Strike Demonstration program.
There are multiple phases to the program "meant to continue evaluation of the performance of the vendors," according to the release.
"There will be competition throughout the entire period of performance of these awards," it said, adding that the companies will "participate in user-focused and influenced experimentation events."
The aircraft will also test the "Skyborg Autonomous Core System," the drone's AI system, which is being constructed by Leidos, according to Defense News.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.