Amid the complete lack of positive news in relation to commercial aerospace, it is very pleasing to see that Boeing Australia has this week rolled out the first of three production representative, unmanned aircraft being built under the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF’s) AUD 40 million (USD 25.7 million) DEF6014 Phase 1 project which is also known under the title of the Loyal Wingman-Advanced Development Programme.
Unveiled by Boeing Defense on February 26th the role out the first Loyal Wingman unmanned aircraft by Boeing in Australia two days ago is a remarkable achievement not just in relation to the speed of development but importantly, the Airpower Teaming Systems (ATS) which most appear to be calling ‘Loyal Wingman’ is the first ‘clean-sheet’ Boeing aircraft to be developed outside the US not to mention it being the first military aircraft to be built in Australia for more than 50 years.
The three ‘Loyal Wingman’ aircraft prototypes will be used for testing and validating new technologies and operational concepts for future RAAF operations. The Australian Government has invested up to $40 million in the Boeing Loyal Wingman – Advanced Development Program. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the new capability would help protect and support Australia’s most valuable Defence aircraft, and the pilots who fly them adding that “We are investing to enhance the agility and capability of the Australian Defence Force so that we can protect our nation and our allies. It means Australia can sharpen its edge and prepare for the future.”
Defense News quotes Jerad Hayes, Boeing’s senior director for autonomous aviation and technology as saying that “Autonomy is a big element of this, as well as incorporation of artificial intelligence, two elements that combined enable us to support existing forces”. The journal suggests that the ATS is semi-autonomous meaning that fighter pilots will not have to remotely control the manoeuvres of the drone.
Ahead of the first flight and subsequent additional knowledge being gained the amount of data that Loyal Wingman will be transferred from the ATS to the cockpit of the manned aircraft controlling it is yet to be answered. Even so and even within an increasingly crowded unmanned vehicle market I believe that in the manner that Boeing have approached the Airpower Teaming System ‘Loyal Wingman vehicle development particularly in respect of placing autonomy and artificial intelligence at the forefront of the design capability bodes very well.
Working with the Australian Air Force over the coming months as the aircraft begin to fly will provide company and air force user with the information they need to make ‘Loyal Wingman’ a potentially large international success story – not just for Boeing but also for Australia. There is still much work to be done but it is good to see Boeing Defense putting an increasing level of investment and effort to creating new technologies, innovative new products and solutions.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison went on to say in the statement that “Our investment also highlights our Government’s commitment to growing and developing our local defence industry, creating jobs and boosting our global export potential. The Loyal Wingman program has helped support around 100 high tech jobs in Australia. Such projects will be critical to bolster growth and support jobs as the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In terms of technical data Loyal Wingman is intended to have a range of more than 3,700 kilometres. The strategy behind the project is that it will allow defence planners to better understand how these types of unmanned aircraft can be used as a force-multiplier, helping to project power forward while keeping manned capabilities out of harm’s way.
Reuters quotes Boeing as having said that the company sees mass production of Loyal Wingman by the middle of the current decade
Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds said the partnership with Boeing has allowed ‘Defence’ to bring innovation to Australia in an exciting, future-focused technology space adding that “The program will examine how autonomous unmanned aircraft can support existing manned aircraft, such as our Joint Strike Fighters, Super Hornets and Growlers” adding that “This is Australian ingenuity at its finest and presents Australia and our allies with opportunities for critical capabilities to fight emerging global threat systems.”
Minister for Defence Industry Melissa Price said the program was welcome news for Australia’s defence industry, particularly suppliers from small businesses. Boeing Defense has a long history of working closely with Australia in respect of the 75 F/A-18 Hornet jets supplied during the 1980’s and that were mostly assembled in Australia by Government Aircraft Factories.
The first ‘Loyal Wingman’ unmanned aircraft is scheduled to commence ground trials soon. Taking such a project on was not done lightly. The underlying challenge was “How can you extend and expand the capabilities of some of the world’s most elite airpower systems? The answer was “by multiplying their capabilities – and exponentially increasing their ability to project force as a result.
The Boeing Airpower Teaming System is a new unmanned aircraft using artificial intelligence to be that force multiplier designed to work as a smart team with existing military aircraft to complement and extend airborne missions. The Airpower Teaming System has enough capability to get the job done – from ISR to tactical early warning and more – but with a low-cost design that allows operators to confidently put it on the front line.
The Boeing Airpower Teaming System will provide a disruptive advantage for allied forces’ manned and unmanned missions. The company says that Loyal Wingman will provide fighter-like performance, measuring 38 feet long (11.7m) and able to fly more than 2,000 nautical miles. It will have integrated sensor packages onboard to support intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, tactical early warning missions and more plus also using artificial intelligence to fly independently or in support of manned aircraft while maintaining safe distance between other aircraft.
The first flight is anticipated later this year. Loyal Wingman has been designed to provide a transformational capability for global defense customers. This is Boeing’s largest investment in a new unmanned aircraft program outside the United States and as an intended force multiplier the longer-term international strategy would appear to be based on supplying a specific purpose-built and designed aircraft that can be missionized to suit country-specific needs.
Boeing has invested in a purpose-built system that leverages advanced manufacturing, digital production and augmented reality capability. While the program uses Boeing’s global R&D expertise together with a strong industry team of agile global suppliers, with the ability to support national prosperity and sovereignty objectives, the programme is expected to benefit hundreds of small and medium sized enterprises in Australia.
CHW (London – 7th May 2020)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785