Boeing has revealed a new programme for unmanned aircraft that will fly missions alongside piloted airplanes in the Royal Australian Air Force. The Boeing Airpower Teaming System will be developed for global defence customers by the company’s Aussie arm, Boeing Australia. This represents the company’s largest investment in unmanned aircraft outside the US, according to a statement released on Tuesday February 26th.
Australian defence minister Christopher Pyne uncovered a full-scale mock-up of the plane at the Australian international air show at Avalon Airport in Geelong on Tuesday, February 26th. The Australian government plans to collaborate with Boeing on the concept, called the “Loyal Wingman” that will begin test flights as soon as 2020.
“The Boeing Airpower Teaming System will provide a disruptive advantage for allied forces’ manned/unmanned missions,” said Kristin Robertson, vice president and general manager of Boeing Autonomous Systems, according to a news release. “With its ability to reconfigure quickly and perform different types of missions in tandem with other aircraft, our newest addition to Boeing’s portfolio will truly be a force multiplier as it protects and projects air power.”
Boeing Australia also announced the new programme on Twitter, posting an artist’s mock-up of several artificial intelligence-controlled drone aircraft flying alongside a piloted F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet. “Our new smart, reconfigurable unmanned system teams with other aircraft to protect & project air power,” Boeing said in the post.
Boeing is not the first to announce “loyal wingman” drone concept, an uncrewed drone able to support crewed aircraft, with similar programmes in development by Lockheed Martin and Kratos Defense and Security Solutions. But this is the first major programme outside of the US.
Marc Allen, president of Boeing International, called the novel partnership “a historic endeavour,” adding that “not only is it developed outside the US, it is also designed so that our global customers can integrate local content to meet their country-specific requirements.”
Boeing says the first design of the aircraft will be 38-feet-long, provide fighter-like performance, and have a range of 2,000 nautical miles (2,300 statute miles). That puts it on par with the one-way flight range of current manned fighters in the Australian Royal Force such as the F/A-18 Super Hornet and the F-35 Lightning II.
Boeing claims the new aircraft will use AI to fly safely and independently in supporting roles to manned aircraft. It will be equipped with sensor packages to support intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions as well as electronic warfare.
Another illustration released by Boeing shows a group of new aircraft flying a new Boeing 737 airborne early warning and control aircraft. According to Australia’s ABC, unnamed industry sources said that the drones could eventually be used to deliver bombs.