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Boeing Australia has built the first of three Loyal Wingman aircraft, which will serve as the foundation for the Boeing Airpower Teaming System being developed for the global defense market. The aircraft are designed to fly alongside existing platforms and use artificial intelligence to conduct teaming missions.

Australian pilotless combat jet to inspire Boeing US Air Force prototype

Image credit: Boeing

Boeing will use a pilotless, fighter-like jet developed in Australia as the basis for its US Air Force Skyborg prototype, an executive at the company has announced.

The 'Loyal Wingman' – the first military aircraft designed and manufactured in Australia in over 50 years – made its first flight on Saturday (27 February) under the supervision of a Boeing test pilot monitoring it from a ground control station in South Australia.

The aircraft, also developed by Boeing, is 11.6m long, has a 2,000 nautical mile (3,704km) range, and a nose that can be outfitted with various payloads. The aircraft can also carry weapons and act as a shield to help protect more expensive manned fighter jets, according to its developers.

Back in December, the US Air Force awarded multi-million dollar contracts to Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, and Kratos Defense and Security Solutions to produce unmanned aerial prototypes that can team with crewed jets.

“The airpower teaming system is the basis for our Skyborg bid,” said Boeing airpower teaming programme director Shane Arnott. “Obviously the US market is a big market. That is a focus for us, achieving some sort of contract or programme of record in the United States.”

Defence contractors are investing increasingly in autonomous technology as militaries around the world look for cheaper and safer ways to maximise their resources, and to develop the next generation of fighter jets. 

Australia, a staunch US ally, is home to Boeing’s largest footprint outside the US and has vast airspace with relatively low traffic for flight testing. 

The Australian government said it would invest a further A$115m (£64m) to acquire three more Loyal Wingman aircraft for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to develop tactics for using the jets with crewed planes, on top of its initial investment of A$40m (£22m). 

“Our aim with Boeing is to understand how we can get these aircraft to team with our existing aircraft to be a force multiplier in the future,” RAAF Air-Vice Marshal and head of air force capability Cath Roberts said. 

“The Loyal Wingman project is a pathfinder for integrating autonomous systems and artificial intelligence to create smart human-machine teams,” Roberts said in a statement at the time of the Loyal Wingman’s test flight where it took off under its own power before flying a pre-determined route at different speeds and altitudes to verify its functionality and to show the performance of the design.

In January, the UK government signed a £30m contract with the Belfast unit of Spirit AeroSystems for a similar type of pilotless aircraft which they hope to trial flight in the next three years. 

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