The Australian government and Boeing recently unveiled their plans for a “Loyal Wingman” drone system that would provide multiple support drones for fighters, bombers, and even unarmed aircraft during combat operations. Now, the U.S. Air Force has begun touting a new endeavor, dubbed “Skyborg,” that could take the Loyal Wingman concept to the next level.

Put simply, Skyborg is an Air Force Research Lab initiative that aims to not only field unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) to support manned combat aircraft, but to use artificial intelligence (AI) to allow these armed drones to learn directly from the behavior of their human peers. Skyborg-equipped aircraft could fly alongside fifth-generation fighter platforms like the F-35, participating in combat operations and even making decisions about how best to execute the mission in situations where it may be better equipped than even human operators.

As Oriana Pawlyk at points out, AI-enabled drones could feasibly identify and respond to incoming threats faster and more accurately than a human could in some circumstances. While a pilot has to rely on data being relayed to him or her via the aircraft’s (increasingly streamlined) monitors or heads-up displays, a drone touting AI could read and respond to incoming threats without that cognitive lag, making decisions informed by lessons learned from observing the human pilot, but executing them within a fraction of a second.

The idea of having an autonomous platform thinking, learning, and flying alongside human pilots may sound a little too much like the ill-fated 2005 film, “Stealth,” in which a team of pilots has to chase down its UCAV wingman after it gains sentience (due, of course, to a lightning strike). In reality, however, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Dr. Will Roper contends the pressing threat related to AI isn’t that our aircraft will turn on us, but rather the possibility that a nation like China may begin fielding these systems first.

The Skyborg Program: The Air Force's new plan to give fighter pilots drone sidekicks
This movie predicted elements of the Skyborg program more than a decade ago, despite being overwhelmingly mediocre.

“Imagine having trained person after person, generation after generation. What if, once you get on the curve, what if it’s exponential? And whoever gets on it first has an advantage forever?” Roper asks. “I don’t want China on that curve. I want us on that curve, and us accelerating ahead of the pack.”

Roper doesn’t believe that a program like Skyborg will lead to removing manned aircraft from combat operations, but rather he sees it as an opportunity to expand the branch’s force projection capabilities. The digital knowledge acquired from the Skyborg initiative, wherein the AI-equipped drones learn by following the lead of human pilots, could be used to help mature the capabilities of multiple autonomous aircraft across the force, and even inform the ways the Air Force trains future human pilots.

The Skyborg Program: The Air Force's new plan to give fighter pilots drone sidekicks
Drones like the Air Force’s new XQ-58A Valkyrie could be equipped with Skyborg AI to fly alongside manned aircraft. (USAF)

“Learning is taking place on one platform to be shared across a fleet of those platforms (but) you may want to share that across the entire Air Force,” Roper said. “I would love to have an Air Force that did that.”

Eventually, those same AI systems could find their way into manned aircraft as well — making for an incredibly adept autopilot, but more importantly, serving as a valuable tool in the human operator’s arsenal. Having a capable AI that has learned its operational tactics from the pilot it’s flying with could help further streamline situational awareness for pilots and expedite responses to threats.

“I might eventually decide, ‘I want that AI in my own cockpit,'” Roper told journalists. “So if something happened immediately, (the AI) could take hold, make choices in a way that (a pilot would) know because (a pilot has) trained with it.”

A Skyborg-powered fleet is still a ways off, but Roper says the branch intends to have some operational models within the coming years. As the technology matures, officials will develop a better understanding of how best to leverage the capabilities the program offers, and importantly, where not to leverage them.

Roper says the Skyborg system’s responses to training will be “how we’ll know how much we trust, and how much (responsibility) we’re willing to turn over to it.”