General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) used a company-owned Avenger MQ-20A Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) to fly a military aircraft using an Artificially Intelligent (AI) pilot deployed on an operationally relevant, Open Mission Systems (OMS) software stack on September 12, 2022.
The Avenger’s completely autonomous flight used an AI pilot for close to 30 minutes as a part of a cooperating live, virtual, and constructive UAS swarm. The flight was performed as part of GA-ASI’s ongoing commitment and investment into the development of advanced autonomy of AI and Machine Learning (ML) for UAS.
The flight made use of GA-ASI’s novel Reinforcement Learning (RL) architecture to develop and validate an RL agent in an operationally relevant environment. RL agents provide a new and innovative tool for next-generation military platforms to make decisions under dynamic and uncertain real-world conditions. The team flew “chase and avoid behavior” where real-time updates were made to the flight path in order to avoid adversaries using live fused tracks. Live tracks were provided to the system using the Infrared Search and Track (IRST) sensor network that was supplied by Lockheed Martin.
«The flight was a tremendous success and demonstrated a number of groundbreaking capabilities in the race to operationalize autonomy for Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA)», said GA-ASI Senior Director of Advanced Programs Michael Atwood. «It’s exciting to see how AI can be used to advance how and where we fly unmanned systems as the complexity of the battlespace increases. Our ‘chase and avoid’ agent’s ability to dynamically update the flight path as threats were identified is the first step towards building an ecosystem of collaborative autonomous combat aircraft».
TacIRST is a new class of multifunction, embeddable sensor system with an open architecture. It was developed by Lockheed Martin to provide a range of capabilities for both crewed and uncrewed aircraft. «We anticipated the need for passive, long-range threat detection by autonomous aircraft and are proud to see this capability integrated successfully on the Avenger», said Terry Hoehn, Director of Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Threat Warning Systems. «We look forward to further collaboration and testing with GA-ASI».
The team used a government-furnished CODE autonomy engine and the government-standard OMS messaging protocol to enable communication between the RL agent and the Tactical IRST. By utilizing government standards, such as CODE and OMS, rapid integration of autonomy for collaborative combat aircraft becomes possible.
General Dynamics Mission Systems also supplied key technologies to the flight. The mission computer used to host the OMS software is part of the Digital Backbone Node (DBN) family of systems from General Dynamics Mission Systems. The DBN architecture enables rapid and secure deployment of evolving capabilities needed for CCA through application of the latest government open architectures, high-performance computing, advanced cooling, and a high-speed backplane with multi-level security to maximize battlefield collaboration between platforms.
This flight was another in an ongoing series of autonomous flights performed by GA-ASI using internal research and development funding to prove out important AI/ML concepts for advanced UAS.
Bell Textron Inc., a Textron Inc. company, announced on September 19, 2022 it has entered into a teaming agreement with Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), a global aerospace and national security company, for Bell’s High-Speed Vertical Takeoff and Landing (HSVTOL) aircraft. As part of the collaboration, SNC will specifically support the design and development of mission systems for HSVTOL variants.
Bell’s HSVTOL vehicles blend the hover capability of a helicopter with the speed, range and survivability features of fighter aircraft, with low downwash hover capability and jet-like speeds of more than 400 kts/460 mph/741 km/h. This family of scalable aircraft concepts is designed to carry out USAF and USSOCOM missions across the full spectrum of conflict and political scenarios, including personnel recovery, contested logistics and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR)/Strike.
«In an effort to advance technical maturity and deliver HSVTOL capability to warfighters sooner, Bell is assembling a team of industry-leading partners. We’re thrilled to have SNC onboard», said Jason Hurst, vice president, Innovation, Bell. «We’ve made significant progress in Bell’s HSVTOL technology development in 2022, and we look forward to showing this progress in the upcoming year».
«SNC is delighted to join the Bell’s HSVTOL development team, and we are already hard at work to deliver the visionary mission systems that Bell demands for their visionary aircraft», says Derek Hess, vice president, strategic program business development at SNC. «Our nation’s warfighters will benefit from this HSVTOL program’s ground-breaking operational capabilities».
Similar to Bell’s innovation development, SNC continues to leverage its mission systems expertise to explore dynamic new opportunities. SNC also supports Bell with additional mission systems expertise for the development of the Bell 360 Invictus for the U.S. Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) competition.
Bell is currently executing its HSVTOL risk reduction effort and participating in the AFwerX HSVTOL Concept Challenge, a crowdsourcing effort for the United States Air Force (USAF) and United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). Bell is one of 11 companies from more than 200 challenge entrants selected to receive market research investments aimed at advancing HSVTOL technology.
DARPA’s AdvaNced airCraft Infrastructure-Less Launch And RecoverY X-Plane program, nicknamed ANCILLARY, aims to develop and flight demonstrate critical technologies required for a leap ahead in Vertical TakeOff and Landing (VTOL), low-weight, high-payload, and long-endurance capabilities. The goal is to build a plane that can launch from ship flight decks and small austere land locations in adverse weather without launch and recovery equipment typically needed for these systems.
«The ability for the warfighter to deploy and retrieve such systems in challenging conditions without reliance on infrastructure would minimize personnel, costs, and vulnerability during sensitive operations», said Steve Komadina, the DARPA program manager for ANCILLARY.
A large non-traditional commercial industry base has fueled recent VTOL research investments and advanced controls leading to innovative vehicle configurations spanning size, weight, power, and cost. Advancements in small propulsion systems, high capacity low weight batteries, fuel cells, materials, electronics, and low-cost additive manufacturing can now enable new architectures and designs to be explored in this trade space.
«ANCILLARY plans to use a multi-disciplinary approach that will bring together developments in advanced control theory, aerodynamic modelling, and advanced propulsion to solve a combination of challenging design objectives», said Komadina. «The upcoming Proposers Day and Expo on September 20, 2022, will not only bring together traditional aircraft manufactures, but also non-traditional military contractors that have been investigating commercial VTOL solutions».
Industry and academic technologists and researchers who could supply needed component and manufacturing techniques are encouraged to attend.
AdvaNced airCraft Infrastructure-Less Launch And RecoverY (ANCILLARY)
Northrop Grumman Corporation on September 14, 2022 unveiled Australia’s first MQ-4C Triton autonomous aircraft during a ceremony at its High-Altitude, Long-Endurance (HALE) aircraft production site in California. The event, attended by Australian, U.S. government and defense officials, highlights the continued progress of the MQ-4C Triton program for both the Royal Australian Air Force and U.S. Navy.
«Today marks a significant milestone for Australia and the MQ-4C Triton program», said Tom Jones, corporate vice president and president, Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems. «As we get ready for final system integration and flight test, we are one step closer to delivering this extraordinary maritime awareness capability to Australia».
Australia is a cooperative program partner in the Triton program and was critical in helping shape the requirements for the system. As partners, U.S. and Australian defense forces will be able to share data collected by their respective Tritons, a critical ability in one of the world’s most strategically important regions.
«Triton will provide the Royal Australian Air Force with an unprecedented capability to monitor and protect our maritime approaches», said Air Marshal Robert Chipman, Chief of the Royal Australian Air Force. «Triton will work alongside the P-8A Poseidon and this unmanned aircraft system will allow us to cover significant areas, at longer ranges and has the ability to stay airborne longer than a traditional aircraft».
Northrop Grumman initiated the build of the first Australian Triton in October 2020 at its production facility in Moss Point, Mississippi, and met another major production milestone in December 2021 when the fuselage and one-piece wing were mated in Palmdale, California. The aircraft is scheduled for production completion in 2023 and delivery to Australia in 2024.
Northrop Grumman’s family of autonomous HALE systems perform critical wide-area Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Targeting (ISR&T) missions. Today, autonomous HALE systems operate across the globe, with greater than 24-hour endurance, collecting essential ISR&T data over land and sea to enable rapid, informed decision-making. In the future, these systems will connect the joint force, implementing advanced autonomy and artificial intelligence and machine learning while delivering indispensable capabilities with fewer people to provide information at the speed of relevance.
Boeing has digitally demonstrated a new open autonomy architecture for MQ-25 Stingray that will allow the U.S. Navy to increase mission effectiveness by integrating Manned-UnManned Teaming (MUM-T) capability at speed and scale.
The non-proprietary architecture, based on the government-owned Open Mission System specification, is the foundation for advanced MUM-T. A Boeing-led team virtually demonstrated how other aircraft can use MQ-25’s architecture and task it to conduct tanking and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions – all within the mission airspace and without traditional communications with the ship-based ground control station.
Boeing’s MUM-T demonstration included Northrop Grumman’s E-2D Advanced Hawkeye command and control aircraft, Boeing’s P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft and Boeing’s F/A-18 Block III Super Hornet fighter jet. Using their existing operational flight program software and data links, the aircraft safely and efficiently tasked four virtual, autonomous MQ-25s to conduct ISR missions. The F/A-18 Super Hornet also used its advanced tactical data links and Boeing’s conceptual «Project Black Ice» crew vehicle interface, which significantly reduced aircrew workload.
«Large swaths of ocean could be surveilled, identified and targeted when MQ-25 Stingray is teamed with carrier-based assets such as the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye or the land-based P-8A Poseidon patrol aircraft», said Don «BD» Gaddis, director, MQ-25 Stingray Advanced Design. «Through this demonstration, our customers saw how this digital, open approach to MUM-T is key to fielding critical warfighting capability at much lower cost and with greater speed and agility».
For example, the demonstration showed how both the P-8A Poseidon and E-2D Advanced Hawkeye could easily task an MQ-25 Stingray teammate with an ISR mission specifying only the search area and no-fly zones. Using an onboard autonomy framework developed by Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences, the MQ-25 Stingray autonomously did the rest – including validating the command against its operational constraints, planning its route and conducting its search pattern, among many other tasks.
Aurora also created and demonstrated a prototype platform abstraction layer – a software boundary that decouples MQ-25’s flight safety and flight critical components from mission software and sensor hardware. This commercial best practice allows third-party «app» integration on MQ-25 Stingray. Using an Aurora-provided software development kit, Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division created a new radar search application for MQ-25 Stingray that was successfully used during the demonstration.
«Aurora’s robust software development kit enables our Navy teammates to rapidly integrate new capabilities», said Graham Drozeski, vice president of Government Programs for Aurora Flight Sciences. «The platform abstraction demonstration met test objectives for resource sharing between multiple onboard systems and supervisors, and these efforts will greatly reduce government test and certification costs as new capabilities are added over time».
The demonstration was aligned to the future warfighting capabilities in the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Campaign Framework. Boeing will continue to refine the autonomy, sensors, interface exchanges and crew vehicle interfaces required for MUM-T.
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation office has invested $15 million upgrading a decades-old workhorse to make it relevant for 21st century warfighter challenges.
AFRL’s Autonomous Aircraft Experimentation team is using a highly modified Air Force Test Pilot School NF-16, an aircraft recently designated the X-62, to accelerate the development of tactical autonomy for uncrewed aircraft.
Matthew Niemiec, the autonomous aircraft experiment portfolio lead, said the upgrades to the X-62, also known as the Variable In-flight Stability Test Aircraft, or VISTA, include software that allows it to mimic the performance characteristics of other platforms. He said it also could host a variety of autonomy behaviors, including those from the Skyborg Autonomy Control System and others provided by third-party industry partners.
Skyborg is a Department of the Air Force Vanguard project that has informed the transition of open, modular autonomy to enable combat mass using low-cost uncrewed aircraft. These vehicles will be equipped with autonomy systems and will assist human-piloted aircraft perform critical missions.
Since March 2021, the Autonomous Aircraft Experimentation team executed 16 live test events focused on evaluating the Skyborg Autonomy Control System on the Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie, UTAP-22 Mako and General Atomics MQ-20 Avenger uncrewed air vehicles.
«The data generated during these tests, along with feedback provided from our user community, show that in order to rapidly develop and mature tactical autonomy on an appropriate timeline, investment in, and utilization of, a mature, tactically relevant platform is required», Niemiec said.
The X-62 uses a «safety sandbox» that allows integration and flight of modeled air vehicles, control laws and autonomy capabilities. Unlike the uncrewed aerial vehicles such as the Valkyrie, Mako and Avenger, the X-62 has room for a crew of two, including a pilot who can supervise the autonomy control system’s performance, similar to the way the automotive industry tested autonomous driving features.
«Ground and flight testing on X-62 is one of several steps we are taking to build out critical information networks and physical storage infrastructure necessary to enable rapid autonomy development», Niemiec said. «The goal by fall 2022 is to have it flying alongside an uncrewed platform, with both using tactically-relevant sensors while flying autonomy behaviors. We’re also building out a robust simulation environment to capture operator feedback and integrate their inputs into our autonomy development process».
Two systems have been modified in the X-62. One is the VISTA simulation system, which allows the aircraft to mimic the flight characteristics of a different airplane. The other is the system for the autonomous control of the simulation, which enables different autonomous behaviors to fly the airplane.
«When you stitch those two capabilities together, you get a tactically relevant aircraft that enables rapid test of autonomy capabilities while also proving out the interface requirements necessary for different vehicle platforms», Niemiec said.
He said Skyborg and other advanced autonomy development efforts like DARPA’s (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Air Combat Evolution can leverage the X-62 as a surrogate for testing high-risk autonomous maneuvers, in parallel with uncrewed aircraft development efforts that are evaluating new high-risk vehicle model designs.
«Because we have a safety pilot, we can always turn it off, and improve our throughput for testing autonomy capability by 10 times», Niemiec said.
VISTA’s safety trip system also could automatically disengage the VISTA simulation system when the boundaries of its safety sandbox are violated, allowing larger and riskier steps to be taken with no impact on flight safety, he said.
Doctor M. Christopher Cotting, USAF Test Pilot School director of research, said VISTA is maintained and operated under a partnership with the Calspan Corporation and Lockheed Martin Skunkworks. The USAF Test Pilot School acts as VISTA’s prime integrator, manager and test organization.
«The USAF Test Pilot School has been the home of NF-16D VISTA since 2001», Cotting said. «It has been used to expose students to a wide range of aircraft dynamics, allowing students to experience first-hand both ‘good’ and ‘dangerous’ aircraft after they have been discussed and analyzed in the classroom».
VISTA has also been a risk mitigation platform for future USAF technologies.
«After a long track record of supporting the USAF Test Pilot School and the Air Force, the research systems on the aircraft were becoming dated and unsupportable», Cotting said.
As part of the transformation into the X-62 VISTA, Lockheed Martin Skunkworks designed the system for Autonomous Control of the Simulation, a new system for VISTA. This highly flexible computer architecture enables VISTA to test a wide range of autonomous systems.
Another integral part of the transformation was the new VISTA simulation system Calspan Corporation designed and installed. Lockheed Martin Skunkworks contributed the model following algorithm, an enhanced modeling framework capability to the simulation system. The improvements allow VISTA to support a wider range of aircraft simulation and multiple research control laws.
Cotting said the model following algorithm supports a modeling framework that can be openly distributed to researchers.
«Once researchers have integrated their simulation models, the new VISTA simulation system can take those models and easily implement them into the X-62», he said.
«Normally a new control system for an aircraft can take years to implement on an aircraft», Cotting said. «With VISTA, a new control system can be installed and flown in just a few months. Once installed, changes can be made overnight to modify the control system based on information learned during that day’s flight test».
The X-62 VISTA is built to be a technology demonstrator and risk reduction platform. For example, the control laws used to fly the Joint Strike Fighter were first flown on VISTA before the strike fighter’s first flight, reducing significant technical and safety risk.
«VISTA’s simulation framework is flexible enough to allow aircraft designers a chance to fly their aircraft before it ever leaves the ground», Cotting said. «While modern simulation laboratories are getting much better at simulating aircraft, they still cannot replicate some of the unknowns of operating an aircraft in a relevant flight environment. VISTA and its simulation system allow digital aircraft designs to be ‘flight tested’ before the aircraft is ever built».
Niemiec said AFRL is working with multiple industry partners to integrate advanced, tactical performance vehicle designs along with cutting edge autonomy capabilities onto the X-62.
«VISTA will allow us to parallelize the development and test of cutting edge artificial intelligence techniques with new uncrewed vehicle designs», he said. «This approach, combined with focused testing on new vehicle systems as they are produced, will rapidly mature autonomy for uncrewed platforms and allow us to deliver tactically relevant capability to our warfighter».
The Navy recently awarded a $135.8 million contract to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) for eight MQ-9A Extended Range (ER) Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) that are scheduled for delivery to the Marine Corps in late 2023.
MQ-9A ER will provide a large scale, long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability for the Marine Expeditionary Force. It is designed to extend the aircraft’s endurance to more than 30 hours and equipped with triple redundant avionics architecture.
As part of the Marine Corps Force Design 2030 efforts, the Marines plan to transition Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron (VMU) 3 located at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii to MQ-9A operations. VMU-3 will utilize the MQ-9A ERs to support training for the Marine Littoral Regiment.
The Multi-Mission Tactical UAS program office (PMA-266), who manages the Marines MQ-9 program, used the Air Force’s Agile Reaper Enterprise Solution (ARES) to award the contract. ARES is a five-year fixed Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (ID/IQ) contract.
«Our team has ensured the development and fielding of a new combat capability, critical for the Marine Corps Force Design (FD) 2030 vision, at an exceptional speed», said Captain Dennis Monagle, PMA-266 program manager.
Since the program’s inception in 2018, PMA-266 has leveraged Air Force investments and contracting solutions to procure MQ-9, ultimately accelerating the fielding time. By tailoring and streamlining the typical acquisition strategy, the MQ-9 program commenced post-Milestone C, eliminating three to five years of traditional acquisition efforts.
«We closely aligned with the USAF MQ-9 System Program Office (SPO), National Guard Bureau, Marine Corps stakeholders, as well as our vendor teams in order to develop and integrate as quickly as possible», Monagle said.
The first two MQ-9 aircraft were delivered in 2019 to Marine Unmanned Air Vehicle Squadron (VMU) 1 and since then have flown over 15,000 operational flight hours. The program continues to develop new, unique payloads and capabilities to meet future requirements for FD 2030. These payloads include the Detect and Avoid System (DAAS), a Proliferated Low Earth Orbit (PLEO) satellite system, an airborne network extension payload (Sky Tower), and an electronic warfare payload.
The MQ-9A and associated payloads will provide the Marines with organic network extension and Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, and Targeting (ISR-T) in support of expeditionary advanced based operations, littoral operations in contested environments, and maritime domain awareness.
The F/A-18 Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler Program Office (PMA-265) has conducted a successful series of Manned-UnManned Teaming (MUM-T) flight tests in which a Block III F/A-18 Super Hornet demonstrated command and control of three Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).
The event took place at Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, Point Mugu, California, and included four flight tests supported by Air Test and Evaluation Squadrons (VX) 23 and 31 and industry partners, Boeing and BAE Systems.
«The MUM-T concept explores interoperability between manned aircraft and unmanned autonomous systems to conduct missions», said Captain Jason Denney, program manager for PMA-265. «Such collaborative endeavors are imperative for resource and requirements planning to ensure the warfighter is equipped with best-in-class capabilities».
During the flight tests, F/A-18 pilots Super Hornet entered commands into a third-party tablet instructing the UAVs to perform various maneuvers used in combat missions. The tablet was connected to the Block III’s adjunct processor, known as the Distributed Targeting Processor – Networked (DTP-N), which transmitted these commands to the UAVs. The UAVs successfully carried out all commands given by the pilots.
«The U.S. Navy conducts exercises of this nature with industry partners to evaluate current and future capabilities», said Doctor Michael Yu, PMA-265 science and technology, and experimentation/demo lead. «The comprehensive analysis of data captured during these events further informs development and refinement of technologies that could potentially be incorporated into Navy platforms».
Yu said MUM-T could allow the U.S. Navy to extend the reach of its aircrew, while keeping them farther away from enemy fire. This capability could also enable pilots to delegate tasks or incorporate UAVs into missions such as patrolling airspace, fueling aircraft or serving as a communication relay node.
«MUM-T has the potential to transform tomorrow’s fleet into a more lethal, better-connected force», said Denney. «MUM-T will help us maintain the technological advantage and competitive edge against our adversaries».
The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet serves as the backbone of carrier-based aviation power projection. PMA-265 continues to evaluate MUM-T and other innovative technology to keep the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler strategically relevant in today’s dynamic combat environment.
The U.S. Navy recently demonstrated a Mine CounterMeasure (MCM) prototype technology aboard the MQ-8C Fire Scout Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, proving a capability that could allow the warfighter to rapidly detect and respond to threats.
The objective of the demonstration was to gather performance data for both the MQ-8C Fire Scout and Single-system Multi-mission Airborne Mine Detection (SMAMD) System to inform future MCM integration efforts.
«The team successfully demonstrated that the prototype SMAMD System effectively operates as designed aboard the MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter in relevant real world environments», said Captain Thomas Lansley, Fire Scout program director. «This cutting-edge technology could really enhance Fire Scout’s capability going forward».
The team conducted operations from the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) utilizing drifting, tethered, and moored mines throughout beach zone to deep waters. They gathered data day and night, across all water depths and in mild to difficult weather conditions.
The demonstration also proved the reliable and repeatable high performance of the MQ-8C Fire Scout. The air vehicle handled the dual podded system with ease, being the first MCM capability flown on the MQ-8C Fire Scout as well as the heaviest payload carried to date. MQ-8C Fire Scout successfully operated in restricted and unrestricted air space alongside other aircraft platforms.
The SMAMD System, developed by BAE Systems under a Future Naval Capability (FNC) Program sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), is an airborne optical sensor suite that, in a single pass, detects and localizes mines and obstacles on land and at sea. With a low false-alarm rate, SMAMD provides real-time detection sent via data link enabling warfighters to respond much quicker to threats than the current MCM technologies allow as post-mission analysis is required.
This effort, led by ONR, included support from multiple organizations across the Navy and industry including the MQ-8 Fire Scout program office, the Program Executive Office Unmanned and Small Combatants (PEO USC), Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), Aircraft Prototype Systems Division (APSD), Webster Outlying Field (WOLF), the Digital Analytics Infrastructure and Technology Advancement Group Prototyping, Instrumentation and Experimentation Department, and Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Two Four (UX-24).
ONR and PMA-266 engaged NAWCAD AIRWorks to manage the demonstration taking advantage of AIRWorks’ project execution expertise and ability to connect warfare center resources.
«The AIRWorks SMAMD Team was proud to be a part of demonstrating a future naval capability which provides real-time threat detection to the warfighter», said AIRWorks’ project lead Kristina Hewitt-Thompson. «Through this effort, we were able to assist in risk reduction and provide critical data for future integration».
Throughout the project, the team facilitated execution of a complex demonstration including airworthiness and cyber certifications, design, fabrication and hardware integration along with flying qualities testing prior to the final demonstration at Eglin, she said. They assured close coordination between the U.S. Air Force, ONR, Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) and other stakeholder organizations to successfully achieve their objectives in less than 24 months and at a reduced cost.
AIRWorks is NAWCAD’s office focused on rapidly and effectively delivering fast, affordable, quality solutions to meet immediate and emergent warfighter needs working with government and industry partners to deliver services including aircraft modification, prototyping, additive manufacturing, system integration, sustainment, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and rapid contracting.
The ability to task unmanned systems from a manned aircraft is an important force multiplier in Airbus’ vision for future air power, with a wide range of applications extending to combat scenarios and beyond.
As a pioneer in the realm of Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T), Airbus has developed an ambitious technological roadmap to make this innovative concept – which boosts the effectiveness of piloted and pilotless aircraft alike – a reality. The company demonstrated leading technological and industrial capabilities in 2021 and 2022, including key flight tests.
Fully implementing Manned-Unmanned Teaming – which will play an instrumental role in such initiatives as the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) and Multi-Domain Combat Cloud – requires a high level of automation. However, the involvement of human operators will ensure that meaningful control always will be retained.
Leveraging Airbus’ expertise
The involvement of Airbus with Manned-Unmanned Teaming began in 2018, when the first flight test campaign took place to validate initial capabilities. Since then, the development has seen increasing levels of maturity – with Airbus and its partner teams focusing on several key areas.
Synchronized and efficient use of manned and unmanned vehicles necessitates coordination and optimisation, with requirements that may vary from one mission to the next. To address this, Airbus is developing artificial intelligence-based teaming concepts and algorithms, including swarming behaviours and distributed teaming intelligence shared among the platforms.
This novel approach is reflected in the payloads, which can be integrated on the unmanned aircraft, as well as in the way they are used. For example, a distributed electronic warfare sensor was shown to be capable of precisely and quickly locating a threat and sharing its location across the network.
To achieve such capabilities, the unmanned assets must be able to communicate with the manned resources – and among each other in an agile and robust way, which is why an advanced data link is one pillar of the development.
Additionally, Airbus is preparing airframe solutions for future unmanned systems, building on experience in both unmanned aerial vehicles and combat aircraft. As the development progresses, these solutions will materialise as the FCAS Remote Carriers – unmanned aircraft designed to cooperate with fighters. To achieve the full potential, MUM-T technologies will also need to be relevant for already-existing unmanned aerial systems and for those developed in the future.
Building upon lessons learned from the previous MUM-T-related milestones, Airbus marked a major achievement with a live demonstration that linked company-built Do-DT25 target drones acting as surrogate Remote Carriers with an in-flight German Air Force Eurofighter aircraft. This occurred during the Timber Express 2021 multinational exercise organised by the German Armed Forces.
During the trial, the Eurofighter was able to assign tasks to two Airbus Do-DT25 Remote Carriers in real time. These unmanned platforms demonstrated the ability to perform several tasks, including aerial reconnaissance and electronic warfare. Upon receiving the tasks, the Remote Carriers autonomously planned their flight routes, adhering to prescribed airspace restrictions and circumnavigating known threats.
In 2022, MUM-T-related flight tests were performed outside of Germany for the first time. A test campaign organized in the Finnish areas of Rovaniemi and Kemijärvi – and directed by the Finnish Defence Forces (FDF) – marked the official start of cooperation with the German Armed Forces on this key capability.
As stated by the FDF in a press release: «The research cooperation strengthens the Defence Forces’ understanding of the development of unmanned aviation, which enables experimenting and evaluating the teaming of unmanned and manned aerial vehicles in the local operational environment».
In parallel, the capabilities of manned platforms are increasing to accommodate the future potential of Manned-Unmanned Teaming. Airbus’ multi-role A400M Atlas airlifter is envisioned as a launcher of FCAS Remote Carriers, with the first flight test already performed to confirm this capability.