U.S. Air Force awards contract to several companies for Skyborg program

AeroVironment, BAE Systems Controls, Blue Force Technologies, Fregata Systems, Lockheed Martin, Wichita State University, Autonodyne, NextGen Aeronautic, and Sierra Technical Services have been awarded a $400,000,000 shared ceiling, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contracts for all subsequent competitively selected delivery orders in support of the Skyborg Vanguard Program.

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U.S. Air Force awards contract to several companies for Skyborg program

A Skyborg conceptual design for a low cost Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) (Picture source: Artwork courtesy of AFRL)

These contracts provide for Skyborg prototyping, experimentation and autonomy development, used to deliver missionized prototypes in support of operational experimentation. Skyborg is an autonomous attritable aircraft capable of achieving a diverse set of missions to generate massed combat power. Work will be performed in various locations around the U.S., and is expected to be complete by July 2026. These awards were the result of a competitive acquisition and 18 offers were received. No funds are being obligated at the time of award. Air Force Life Cycle Management, Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, is the contracting activity.

Skyborg is an autonomy-focused capability that will enable the Air Force to operate and sustain low-cost, teamed aircraft that can thwart adversaries with quick, decisive actions in contested environments. The program will enable airborne combat mass by building a transferable autonomy foundation for a family of layered, unmanned air vehicles. This foundation will deliver unmatched combat capability per dollar by lowering the barriers to entry for industry and allowing continuous hardware and software innovation in acquisition, fielding and sustainment of critical mission systems. During this effort, Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) will prototype a suite of autonomy and unmanned system technologies equipped with capabilities that can support a range of Air Force missions.

To fast track this game-changing capability, the U.S. Air Force designated Skyborg as one of three Vanguard programs in 2019. These priority initiatives integrate several technology components across multiple domains to create complex, multidisciplinary solutions. Marked by an enterprise-wide commitment, Vanguards deliver advanced capabilities that transform future operations with cutting-edge technologies. As autonomy technology matures, Skyborg will bring cutting-edge capabilities to the fight at a faster pace and lower cost.

How does the technology work?

Military pilots receive key information about their surroundings when teamed aircraft with integrated autonomy detect potential air and ground threats, determine threat proximity, analyze imminent danger, and identify suitable options for striking or evading enemy aircraft. Embedded within the teamed aircraft, complex algorithms and cutting-edge sensors enable the autonomy to make decisions based on established rules of engagement set by manned teammates. Field tests will ensure the algorithms’ accuracy and verify that the system continuously operates within the constraints established during mission planning.

Air Force policy stipulates that people are always responsible for lethal decision-making. Accordingly, Skyborg will not replace human pilots. Instead, it will provide them with key data to support rapid, informed decisions. In this manner, Skyborg will provide manned teammates with greater situational awareness and survivability during combat missions.

How Is the Air Force advancing this technology?

To advance this initiative, the team is leveraging years of AFRL research into complex autonomy, open architectures, low-cost aircraft technology and manned-unmanned teaming. In previous efforts, AFRL created low-cost airframes, established a common architectures for aircraft capabilities and developed enhanced human interaction and control of autonomous machines.

With small, fast-moving UAV flight experiments underway, AFRL is collaborating across the Department of Defense to increase warfighter trust in autonomous systems. AFRL has designed a programmatic approach to utilize proven technology while guiding the maturation of early technology for future inclusion into systems.

The Skyborg team is also partnering with numerous Air Force organizations, engaging program executive officers and operational commands early in the development process to build a path for acquisition, fielding and sustainment. To accelerate delivery, AFRL is leveraging new business practices and the latest digital engineering techniques to grow the industrial base and allow rapid, streamlined prototypes of future hardware and software components. AFRL is also engaged with other service components and DoD agencies to foster the insertion of superior technologies.

Why is Skyborg important to the Air Force?

Autonomous systems can significantly increase capability and be a force multiplier for the U.S. Air Force. By emphasizing future flexibility, openness, modularity and expandability, Skyborg represents an innovative way for the U.S. to prepare for potential engagements with near peer adversaries at a fraction of the cost of traditional systems.