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A successful demonstration of manned/unmanned teaming to improve combat efficiency and effectiveness for the warfighter was conducted by Lockheed Martin’s experimental engineering department, SKUNK Works, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School and Calspan Corporation.

“The demonstration is an important milestone in AFRL’s maturation of technologies needed to integrate manned and unmanned aircraft in a strike package,” said Capt. Andrew Petry, AFRL autonomous flight operations engineer. “We’ve not only shown how an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle can perform its mission when things go as planned, but also how it will react and adapt to unforeseen obstacles along the way.”

During the flight demonstration, an experimental F-16 aircraft acted as a surrogate Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) autonomously reacting to a dynamic threat environment during an air-to-ground strike mission. The demonstration success included a few key objectives: The ability to autonomously plan and execute air-to-ground strike missions based on mission priorities and available assets, The ability to dynamically react to a changing threat environment during an air-to-ground strike mission while automatically managing contingencies for capability failures, route deviations, and loss of communication.

The two-week demonstration is the second in a series of manned/unmanned teaming exercises to prove enabling technologies.

Shawn Whitcomb, Lockheed Martin program manager said in an interview for Lockheed’s site: “The demonstration team pushed the boundaries of autonomous technology and put a fully combat-capable F-16 in increasingly complex situations to test the system’s ability to adapt to a rapidly changing operational environment. It’s a critical step to enabling future technology development and operational transition programs.”

The first demonstration focused on advanced vehicle control. The experimental F-16 autonomously flew in formation with a lead aircraft and conducted a ground-attack mission, then automatically rejoined the lead aircraft after the mission was completed. These capabilities were linked with Lockheed Martin automatic collision avoidance systems to ensure safe, coordinated teaming between the F-16 and surrogate UCAV.

Effective manned/unmanned teaming reduces the high cognitive workload, allowing the warfighter to focus on creative and complex planning and management. Autonomous systems also have the ability to access hazardous mission environments, react more quickly, and provide persistent capabilities without fatigue.