Trailblazing trials involving manned and unmanned combat aircraft have expanded autonomous flight technology’s outer edges, officials say.
The USAF-led ‘Loyal Wingman’ trials saw an autonomously-operated Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon flying alongside traditionally piloted examples. All mission aims were achieved.
These aims include exploring/validating the drone F-16’s capacity to ‘plan and execute’ air-to-ground strikes and its ability to manage new threats in new environments.
Have Raider II
The trials were part of ‘Have Raider II’ – two weeks of demonstrations staged at and over Edwards Air Force Base. Have Raider II participants included Lockheed Martin’s ‘Skunk Works’ division and AFRL – the US Air Force’s Research Laboratory.
Captain Andrew Petry, autonomous flight ops engineer at AFRL, calls Have Raider II “an important milestone in AFRL's maturation of technologies needed to integrate manned and unmanned aircraft in a strike package.” He adds: “We've not only shown how an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle can perform its mission when things go as planned, but also how it will react and adapt to unforeseen obstacles along the way."
What exactly is Loyal Wingman? Essentially, it’s a developmental programme through which unmanned technologies that can 1/ operate aircraft under autonomous flight control and 2/ act as wingmen are being evolved. Command of the unmanned aircraft is in the lead pilot’s hands whereas, in the past, it would have been handled by ground operators.
Advantages this manned/unmanned combo produces include reduced workload: with the unmanned aircraft taking care of mission planning, countermeasures and suchlike, pilots can refocus on the pure combat role.
Manned/Unmanned Flight Trials
How successful, then, were these latest manned/unmanned flight trials? “The Have Raider II demonstration team pushed the boundaries of autonomous technology and put a fully combat-capable F-16 in increasingly complex situations to test the system's ability to adapt to a rapidly changing operational environment”, says Loyal Wingman program manager at Skunk Works, Shawn Whitcomb.
“This is a critical step to enabling future Loyal Wingman technology development and operational transition programmes."
F-16 Service Life
The F-16 Fighting Falcon is the most successful jet fighter of its generation. In related news, the USAF has just approved a service life extension for the type. This extends its service life from 8,000 to 2,000 hours. Pending SLEP (Service Life Extension Program) modifications’ completion, this could keep USAF F-16s operational until the late 2040s.
"This accomplishment is the result of more than seven years of test, development, design, analysis and partnership between the US Air Force and Lockheed Martin”, states Lockheed Martin F-16 programme vice president, Susan Ouzts. "Combined with F-16 avionics modernization programs like the F-16V, SLEP modifications demonstrate that the Fighting Falcon remains a highly capable and affordable 4th Generation option for the US Air Force and international F-16 customers."
F-16 images copyright USAF - courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Used solely for representative purposes.