From F-16s to UAVs


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As more and more F-35 jets being built and shipped to the United States Air Force, the Air Force is beginning to retire some of its older F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jets. Out of the retired F-16 jets, about thirty of them a year go through modifications to become remote controlled F-16 drones.

Interestingly enough, the newly modified F-16 drones, also known as QF-16s, aren’t used for attacking enemy targets, they are used for quite the opposite, to be hunted and shot down for target practice.

The United States Air Force has been flying the F-16 since the 1980s. Once retired, older F-16s get sent to “The Boneyard”, an Air Force base Arizona. There, the heat and dry air keep the planes in relatively good condition until decided on what to do with them.

The Air Force has been converting F-16s into drones since 2010. mentions that this past year, 32 F-16s have been converted into QF-16s. The fighter jets go through the conversion thanks to a Boeing-designed Drone Peculiar Equipment kit. F-16s are also easier to convert into remote controlled drones due to their fly-by-wire design. This means that the F-16’s onboard computer sends inputs to the aircraft’s flaps, ailerons, engines etc. Converting a fly-by-wire aircraft is considered much simpler than installing physical actuators that manually control the aircraft’s stick, throttle, and other controls.

The QF-16s are capable of performing unmanned maneuvers, takeoff and landing, however reports that the QF-16s typically don’t land since they are used as aerial training targets. The QF-16s are often used for target practice by manned fighter jets firing air-to-air missiles.

The Air Force has also been pushing its “Skyborg” AI software. The AI software is intended to be used to support unmanned aircraft and allow them to be used as robotic wingmen for other aircraft such as an F-22 or F-35. It may be likely that the QF-16s will host the Skyborg software.

Currently, the plan is to retire older F-16s and convert some of them to QF-16s. Those converted will receive a new orange paint job on their horizontal and vertical stabilizers, and will likely eventually be shot down by a friendly manned jet over the Gulf of Mexico.