In the dynamic world of military aviation, innovation is always the key to maintaining a competitive edge. Enter the MQ-28A Ghost Bat, also known as the Loyal Wingman, a remarkable unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) developed through a groundbreaking collaboration between Boeing Australia and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).
This advanced autonomous system, equipped with state-of-the-art artificial intelligence (AI), is set to redefine the landscape of military aviation and teaming missions, bringing a new level of efficiency, safety, and strategic capability to the forefront.
In this article, we delve into the development, features, and significance of the MQ-28A Ghost Bat, with a particular focus on its AI capabilities.
A Marvel of Collaboration and Innovation
The MQ-28A Ghost Bat is a testament to the power of collaboration.
Boeing Australia and the RAAF joined forces under the Loyal Wingman – Advanced Development Programme with a mission to create an unmanned system that could fly in tandem with existing manned aircraft.
This ambitious project has not only yielded a groundbreaking technological marvel but has also been instrumental in job creation and economic recovery, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of March 2022, this unmanned aircraft is officially named the MQ-28A “Ghost Bat” for the RAAF, whereas its global designation remains the Boeing Airpower Teaming System (ATS). In a way, this nomenclature represents its dual identity as a local and international innovation.
A Quantum Leap in Autonomous Aviation with AI
The Ghost Bat is a game-changer in autonomous aviation, and at its core, it’s powered by AI. Its development marks Boeing’s largest investment in a new unmanned aircraft program outside the United States, underscoring its significance in the global defense landscape.
The program aims to support and safeguard Australia’s most valuable combat aircraft, including F-35A Joint Strike Fighters (JSF), F/A-18F Super Hornets, and EA-18G Growlers.
By flying in conjunction with these manned aircraft, the Loyal Wingman enhances the agility and capability of the Australian Defence Force, offering unparalleled versatility and strategic advantage.
MQ-28A: Development and Milestones
Significant milestones have marked the journey of the MQ-28A Ghost Bat.
It was introduced to the world at the 2019 Australian International Airshow in Avalon, creating quite a buzz within the aviation community. Then, in May 2020, the RAAF unveiled the first Loyal Wingman UAV.
The Ghost Bat’s development continued at a rapid pace, with the major fuselage structural assembly being completed in February 2020. This marked a significant moment as the UAV stood on its landing gear, and its electrical systems were powered up for the first time in April 2020.
In February 2021, the program achieved another major milestone with the aircraft’s inaugural flight. Since then, the development has steadily expanded the aircraft’s flight envelope, adapting and evolving as it progresses.
The Australian Government demonstrated its commitment to the program in March 2021 by announcing a co-development partnership with Boeing to create three additional Loyal Wingman aircraft. Valued at A$115 million over three years, this contract will increase the MQ-28A Ghost Bat’s production capability to six units for the RAAF.
This commitment was further reinforced in May 2022 when the federal government announced an additional investment of A$454 million to acquire seven more Ghost Bat aircraft, bringing the total number to 13. This move highlights the significant role the Loyal Wingman plays in Australia’s defense strategy.
The Testing Program
Thorough extensive testing has been a fundamental aspect of the Ghost Bat’s evolution, with AI central to its functionality. In March 2021, the inaugural test flight of the first Loyal Wingman aircraft took place at the Woomera Range Complex in South Australia, marking a significant milestone.
Prior to this, the aircraft underwent a series of rigorous taxi tests to assess ground handling, pilot interface navigation, and control. Following these tests, it accomplished a successful take-off using its own power, demonstrating its autonomous capabilities. The testing regime encompassed flights along predefined routes at different speeds and altitudes to confirm the effectiveness of the aircraft’s design and its systems.
In November 2021, two aircraft accomplished advanced flight missions at the Woomera Range Complex, showcasing their advanced capabilities. These missions included critical capabilities such as raising and engagement of landing gear and the successful first flight of the second aircraft.
An exciting demonstration occurred in December 2021 when a digital twin of the aircraft showcased multiple payloads, crewed-uncrewed teaming capabilities, and semi-autonomous behaviors, all made possible through AI. The testing involved multiple aircraft operating in a threat environment, performing mission tasks while collaborating with crewed aircraft.
Design and Features Enhanced by Artificial Intelligence
Thanks to its advanced AI, the MQ-28A Ghost Bat boasts cutting-edge design and features that set it apart from traditional UAVs.
Its fuselage is constructed from composite materials using an advanced resin-infusion process. This results in a lighter and more durable platform, emphasizing efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
With a length of 11.7 meters (38.39 feet) and a wingspan of 7.3 m (23.95 ft), the Ghost Bat is designed for subsonic flight, and its AI capabilities enable it to adapt to various mission requirements in real-time. It can achieve a range of more than 2,000 nautical miles, effectively providing fighter-like performance in a drone.
One of the standout features of the Loyal Wingman is its ability to fly autonomously using AI. This advanced technology allows it to operate safely alongside manned aircraft, maintaining a safe distance. It is equipped with a variety of sensor packages that enable intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), tactical early warning missions, and various other operations. The power of AI enables real-time decision-making and adaptability, further enhancing its effectiveness in dynamic mission environments.
The flexibility of the Ghost Bat is further demonstrated by its nose section, which can be quickly reconfigured with different sensor payloads to adapt rapidly to various mission requirements. This section, measuring 2.5 meters in length, offers a storage volume of more than 1.5 cubic meters, making it highly adaptable for different payload needs, with AI playing a pivotal role in payload management and optimization.
The Loyal Wingman is also designed to be runway-independent, a key feature that enhances its operational flexibility. Its power comes from a commercial turbofan engine, which ensures reliable and efficient performance, with AI monitoring engine performance and efficiency.
Contractors and Contributors
The MQ-28A Ghost Bat’s development involved collaboration with various contractors and contributors.
BAE Systems supplied AI-integrated systems, Ferra Engineering provided precision components, Micro Electronic Technologies delivered AI-assisted wiring solutions, and RUAG Australia optimized landing gear with AI. AME Systems ensured electrical systems with AI monitoring, while Allied Data Systems controlled power distribution with AI.
Additional contributors included Rosebank Engineering, Lovitt Technologies, and Marand Precision Engineering, where AI-enhanced precision, quality, and efficiency in manufacturing.
Meanwhile, it is to be noted that the MQ-28’s capabilities have attracted interest from the US Air Force. The Pentagon reportedly acquired at least one MQ-28 to support advanced uncrewed aircraft efforts. Boeing’s consideration of a carrier-capable variant has also piqued the interest of both the US Navy and the Royal Navy.
The MQ-28A Ghost Bat, or the Loyal Wingman, represents a remarkable leap forward in autonomous aviation, where AI plays a central role. Developed through the collaborative efforts of Boeing Australia and the RAAF, it is set to redefine the landscape of military aviation with its AI-driven capabilities and adaptability.
As it prepares to enter service with the RAAF, the Ghost Bat stands as a testament to the power of innovation, collaboration, and the pivotal role that artificial intelligence is playing in shaping the future of unmanned aerial vehicles in the defense industry.