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The Australian Air Force is joining the list of countries experimenting with autonomous aircraft, rolling out its first Loyal Wingman drone, based on autonomy and artificial intelligence technologies. The combat drone is designed to operate alongside and extend the capabilities of manned and unmanned platforms.

The RAAF plans to buy three drones, which Boeing calls the Airpower Teaming System (ATS), as part of the Loyal Wingman Advanced Development Program.

Over a series of flight tests and demonstrations, the RAAF hopes to figure out how to best integrate drones with fighter jets and other combat aircraft, allowing the air force to keep pilots safe by putting lower-cost unmanned assets at risk during a fight.

The ATS is semi-autonomous, meaning that fighter pilots will not have to remotely control the maneuvers of the drone, said Shane Arnott, Boeing’s ATS program director. “When you are teaming, say with a Super Hornet, they don’t have the luxury during combat maneuvers or operations to be remotely piloting another aircraft while doing their own,” he said.

One of the challenges is how much data should be transferred from the ATS to the cockpit of the manned aircraft controlling it, and when does that turn into information overload? That question is one Boeing wants to answer more definitively once ATS makes its first flight later this year and moves into its experimentation phase, according to defensenews.com.

While the 11.7m long drone’s sleek, twin-tailed design is simple, with only four moving surfaces, it was carefully composed to optimize the aircraft’s survivability, maneuverability and cost, said Arnott. While he wouldn’t talk about the stealth features of the aircraft, he noted that “there was a lot of thought put into getting that right balance of ‘good enough’ across the board, and [radar] signature is obviously an aspect, and affordability is a big one.”

Boeing’s main competitor is Kratos Defense and Security’s XQ-58 Valkyrie. The U.S. Air Force has expressed interest in procuring Valkyrie for the loyal wingman role and to host communications relay payloads that would allow the F-35 and F-22 to share data stealthily.