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.”