Let’s Talk About Boeing Loyal Wingman Unmanned Aerial Vehicle’s First Flight

The Boeing Loyal Wingman during its first flight. (Photo: Boeing)

The new digitally engineered Boeing Loyal Wingman UAV went from design to the first flight in just three years.

Boeing and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) announced on March 1, 2021, that the Loyal Wingman Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, known also as Airpower Teaming System (ATS) unmanned aircraft, has successfully flown for the first time. The test flight, which took place on February 27, was performed under the supervision of a Boeing test pilot monitoring the aircraft from a ground control station at the Woomera Range Complex, where the UAV has been relocated for the flight test campaign.

According to Boeing’s press release, the aircraft completed a successful takeoff under its own power before flying a pre-determined route at different speeds and altitudes to verify flight functionality and demonstrate the performance of the Airpower Teaming System design.

“The Loyal Wingman’s first flight is a major step in this long-term, significant project for the Air Force and Boeing Australia, and we’re thrilled to be a part of the successful test,” said Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts, RAAF Head of Air Force Capability. “The Loyal Wingman project is a pathfinder for the integration of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence to create smart human-machine teams. Through this project we are learning how to integrate these new capabilities to complement and extend air combat and other missions”.

This first flight follows the low-, medium-, and high-speed taxi testing performed in December to validate ground handling, navigation and control, and pilot interface, after the drone was moved to RAAF Woomera Airfield, which serves the RAAF Air Warfare Centre. The range is located in South Australia, approximately 450 km (280 mi) north-west of Adelaide, and is a major military and civil aerospace facility, which has also been recently used as a landing site for the sample-return capsule from the Japanese space probe Hayabusa2 after visiting asteroid 162173 Ryugu.

This drone is the first clean-sheet design created by Boeing outside the United States and also the first RAAF’s clean-sheet design in more than 50 years. Thanks to digital engineering and advanced manufacturing techniques, which helped to develop structure, systems and life-cycle requirements before physically building the prototype by employing resin-infusion techniques that were developed for the Boeing 787, the Loyal Wingman went from design to the first flight in just three years, according to Boeing.

“Boeing and Australia are pioneering fully integrated combat operations by crewed and uncrewed aircraft,” said Boeing Defense, Space & Security President and CEO Leanne Caret. “We’re honored to be opening this part of aviation’s future with the Royal Australian Air Force, and we look forward to showing others how they also could benefit from our loyal wingman capabilities.”

While the Loyal Wingman is designed primarily for the RAAF, the final version of the ATS will be destined to the global defense market and custom tailored to the client’s own defense and industrial objectives. One of the key features of the ATS is an 8.5 ft (2.6 m) long modular nose cone with 9000 cubic inches internal volume to house different payloads. The entire nose can by swapped quickly according to the mission’s needs and also to the customer’s needs.

The team behind the project explained that the Loyal Wingman has been designed with low-observable features that are balanced with performance and affordability. They also noted that they decided not to use a flying wing because this more complex solution would be more expensive and unforgiving to fly, while the chosen design is relatively simple and has some maneuverability tricks that will make it satisfy a wide range of operational requirements.

The ATS will perform/support Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), tactical early warning and other unspecified missions, teaming up with the E-7 Wedgetail, P-8 Poseidon, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler and F-35A Lightning II in service with the RAAF. The UAV will be flown by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and controlled from the back seat of a Super Hornet or a Growler for smaller formations, or from a control station aboard a Wedgetail or a Poseidon. According to Boeing, the controller will simply signal the mission intent to the Loyal Wingman and the AI will figure out by itself mission specifics and navigation, while keeping a safe separation from other manned and unmanned aircraft.

Speaking about Artificial Intelligence, controversy sparked between the RAAF and civilian academic researchers. Air Marshal Hupfeld, Chief of the Royal Australian Air Force, noted last year that the RAAF is working on the policies to understand the discipline that an airman should apply to a system like the Loyal Wingman. The policy discussions are also focused on a modern strategic environment to determine how the aircraft will behave in operational situations: “Being able to pull that in, how does the platform behave? And what’s the brain in the platform that allows it to do all that and analyze all that information? And then when it’s told when it’s the right time to be able to move forward and engage with an adversary, whether that’s just through other means, short of conflict, and then, of course, at the higher-end if it was required, to be able to shoot a weapon”.

The Boeing Loyal Wingman takes off for its first flight from RAAF Woomera Airfield. (Photo: Boeing)

The University of New South Wales Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy was working with the RAAF on the ethics on how AI-controlled machines should be programmed to use lethal force. A dispute arose when academic researchers complained about “attempts to control the research and its results”, reportedly following a survey of 8000 cadets “about their willingness to deploy in a team ‘involving robots to achieve a combat mission’.” The five-year, $4 million contract between the University and the RAAF Trusted Autonomous Systems Defence Cooperative Research Centre was then cut abruptly, with three years to run.

The Centre was set up to work with Boeing and universities on the autonomous machines and to develop legal and ethical codes to be embedded in their programming code. Following a $9 million investment, the UNSW Canberra would work on the ethics, while the University of Queensland would focus on the legal work.

Back to the ATS, the RAAF initially bought three aircraft. Following the first flight, Boeing announced an agreement, valued at $115 million over three years, to increase the order to six aircraft. The contract will support the maturation of the aircraft design, evolution of current and future payloads, and create the sustainment system for the aircraft in operations.

“In addition to progressing the air vehicle design and support system, we will further develop the aircraft’s mission system including advanced AI decision-making capabilities and new payloads,” said Dr. Shane Arnott, program director of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System. “Continued digital engineering and significantly expanded live testing of the system will provide RAAF and Boeing with the ability to jointly take the concept to the next level, activities that are critical for us to rapidly understand how the Airpower Teaming System can be employed in the future battlespace.”

Not to be forgotten, Boeing will adapt the ATS design for the Skyborg program, after the company was contracted, together with General Atomics and Kratos, to build prototypes of low-cost, manned/unmanned teamed AI-controlled drones for the program led by U.S. Air Force Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL).

About Stefano D'Urso
Stefano D'Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he's also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.