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Skyborg makes its second flight, this time autonomously piloting General Atomics’ Avenger drone

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WASHINGTON — The Air Force conducted a second flight test of the robot pilot known as Skyborg, which autonomously flew a General Atomics MQ-20 Avenger drone June 24.

The event comes about two months after the first flight of Skyborg autonomy core system (ACS) aboard the Kratos UTAP-22 Mako, and proves that the system can be used to pilot multiple types of unmanned aircraft.

“Flying the Skyborg ACS on platforms from two different manufacturers demonstrates the portability of the government-owned autonomy core, unlocking future multi-mission capabilities for the Joint Force,” said Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle, commander of Air Force Research Laboratory.

With Skyborg, the Air Force hopes to eventually field an expendable loyal wingman-style drone that can accompany manned tactical jets into battle, taking on missions that may be too dangerous for human fighter pilots.

The MQ-20 flight took place during the Orange Flag exercise at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., over a period of about two hours and 30 minutes. After a human operator launched the Avenger drone and flew it to a safe altitude, it passed control of the aircraft to the ACS, the Air Force said in a statement.

“The ACS accomplished basic aviation behaviors and responded to navigational commands, while reacting to geo-fences, adhering to aircraft flight envelopes, and demonstrating coordinated maneuvering,” the service stated.

Air Force personnel at a nearby ground command and control station monitored the flight.

While initially the program will be focused on “demonstrating an open, modular ACS that can autonomously aviate, navigate, and communicate,” the service eventually wants to integrate more advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities into the Skyborg brain.

The Air Force is testing the Skyborg ACS with three drone manufacturers, which were awarded contracts in December 2020. Kratos received a $37.7 million, General Atomics got $14.3 million, and Boeing — the only company who has not yet paired its drone with the ACS — got $25.7 million.

According to the service, “future Skyborg experimentation events will explore direct manned-unmanned teaming between manned aircraft and multiple ACS-controlled unmanned aircraft.”

Skyborg is one of the Air Force’s Vanguard programs — four high-priority efforts where AFRL is using prototyping and experimentation to try to push groundbreaking technology forward.

Pringle serves as chief technology officer of the Skyborg program, while Brig. Gen. Dale White, the service’s executive for fighters and advanced aircraft, executes the acquisition side of the program.

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