Defense Speak Interpreted: Your Best Friend is a Skyborg?


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Suddenly the term “Skyborg” is popping up in Air Force publications, and if you are an Air Force pilot, your future best friend may be a Skyborg. To understand the concept behind the term, we need to cover a bit of weapons strategy for the Air Force, where program managers are trying to find an intermediate between two weapons concepts:

  1. Planes with human pilots who go on missions and always return to base. This implies weapons that use human-endurable take-offs, meaning longer runways to come up to speed, and longer runways to land. Cargo space is traded out for human support—oxygen for high altitude, displays and instrumentation for human guidance, fuel to get home, etc.  However, the planes can be huge with enormous payloads, since they are always coming back.  
  2. Single-use munitions which never come back—missiles. Their payload can be the biggest part of total weight since they just need one-way fuel. They may be steered remotely by humans, but never in person. The abhorrent “kamikaze” experiment was the only example I can think of for single-use piloted planes.

The Air Force is focusing its Skyborg program on the concept of “attritable,” based on the concept of “attrition.” This is a concept where the munition usually comes back for maintenance and re-loading but is designed for some acceptable losses on its missions. One concept would be, perhaps, 10 or more missions. If this is done without a human pilot, there are several advantages:

Short take-off and parachute landing that would be hard on a human body has:

  • A high payload-to-weight ratio
  • A cheaper production cost for smaller, shorter life-time munitions, which is perhaps the most important
  • Best of all, the Skyborg can be assigned to dangerous missions where the expected loss of human life is deemed too high   

You may ask how a Skyborg is different from the “Loyal Wingman” program that I detailed in my May 2020 column. The Loyal Wingman program implies a more extensive artificial intelligence-enabled “drone” that can do most anything that a piloted fighter plane can do. This higher capability implies a much higher expense—meaning that Loyal Wingman is more of an “always returns” weapon. Perhaps best of all, visions of Skyborg imply that many of the weapons can be deployed together—more of a “swarm” of highly capable drones. As you will see in my descriptions of the companies entering the Skyborg program, a starting point is the armed drone programs presently deployed, carrying names such as Predator, Gray Eagle, and Reaper.   

fritz_skyborg_700.jpg

The U.S. Air Force places such importance on the Skyborg program that it has designated it as one of its “Vanguard” programs for development. These programs seek to integrate many technologies that create very complex solutions from a variety of disciplines. They intend to quickly transform future combat capability while meeting Defense budget cost targets.  

The other two Vanguard technologies besides Skyborg are “Golden Horde”—a communication systems integration approach between a variety of weapons systems that gets them to act together. There is also the NTS-3 (Navigation Technology Satellite-3) with upgraded positional and timing accuracy.  Obviously, GPS is critical to many day-to-day technologies besides weapons systems.  

The term Skyborg originates from a computer game of the mid-1990s. Wikipedia provides this definition:

“Skyborg: Into the Vortex was a CD-ROM science fiction computer game released in 1995 by the trading card company SkyBox International, Inc. and created by American studio Fringe Multimedia. Players assume the role of “Skyborg,” a cyborg in the year 2025, on a dangerously overpopulated Earth low on food. Dr. Sinclair Barton has created a torus-shaped pocket universe to alleviate this problem. You must enter this universe and travel from planet to planet gathering clues to figure out what has gone wrong and where Dr. Barton is.” [1]

Apparently, the concept of the game was better than actually playing the game. Interestingly, the 1995 game is set in 2025—really not so far in our own future. However, we are way behind in this fantasy inter-planetary space stuff.

The three companies awarded contracts for the first Skyborg prototypes are Boeing, General Atomics, and Kratos. Boeing is well-known as an aircraft builder for commercial aviation and it still maintains the F-15 and F-18 fighters, as both programs were in place when Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas in 1997. General Atomics is known for its drones—Predator, Gray Eagle, and Reaper—as I mentioned previously.  I had to do some research to learn more about Kratos, which I learned is already a participant in the Air Force Loyal Wingman program with its XQ-58 Valkyrie. While starting as a secure information transmission company about 20 years ago, Kratos purchased, in 2020, Technical Directions, Inc.—a builder of smaller turbine engines that power cruise missiles like the Gray Wolf from Northrop Grumman. Kratos has two key components of the Skyborg program:

  • Air frame with propulsion
  • Secure communications needed to assist the Skyborg mission   

According to a December 2020 article in Defense News, “Military officials expect the first prototypes to be delivered no later than May 2021 for initial flight tests. The prototypes will then proceed into flight experiments beginning in July 2021 that will test each drones’ ability to team with manned aircraft, the service stated in a news release.” [2]

Should you think that the Skyborg program is only about the airframe, 10 other companies have also been given contracts for about three-fourths of this initial $400 million assignment: AeroVironment Inc., Autonodyne LLC, BAE System Controls Inc., Blue Force Technologies Inc., Fregata Systems Inc., Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, NextGen Aeronautics Inc., Northrop Grumman, Sierra Technical Services, and Wichita State University. Top of Form

“Over the past several months, the program has focused on developing the technologies necessary for the “Autonomous Core System,” the hardware and software that will enable the Skyborg drone to operate semi-independently from a human operator, who will be able to issue commands but will not have to physically fly the system. The system is being designed by Leidos, using input from the Air Force and other Skyborg vendors.” [3]

According to an article at BreakingDefense.com, “For many missions, we’re ready today. Skyborg, the attritable airplane, that’s going to be flown by ARTUµ or another sci-fi named equivalent,” Roper said. “In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see ARTUµ make it into a Skyborg attritable in the near future,” he said, referring to the AI “copilot” — pronounced R2 and named after the Star Wars droid R2D2 — flight tested in the U-2 spy plane on Tuesday.” [4]

So, some of your Luke Skywalker dreams, being assisted by R2-D2 in the co-pilot seat, are not so far-fetched. Or, with Skyborg, perhaps R2-D2 is flying solo.  For a look at how a Skyborg works, click here to view a great diagram published in Air Force Magazine

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skyborg:_Into_the_Vortex
  2. These 3 companies will build prototypes for the Air Force’s Skyborg drone
  3. Same as above.
  4. NGAD Likely To Carry AI Copilot; Next Step Certifying Them Flight Ready: Roper

Dennis Fritz was a 20-year direct employee of MacDermid Inc. and is retired after 12 years as a senior engineer at (SAIC) supporting the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana. He was elected to the IPC Hall of Fame in 2012.

 

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