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The Loyal Wingman in a league of its own

Australia’s Loyal Wingman, the country’s first domestically designed and built combat drone, has really taken off since it began as a concept just over a year ago with two of the Airpower Teaming Systems completing flight missions in South Australia’s Woomera Range Complex this month.

Australia’s Loyal Wingman, the country’s first domestically designed and built combat drone, has really taken off since it began as a concept just over a year ago with two of the Airpower Teaming Systems completing flight missions in South Australia’s Woomera Range Complex this month.

The pair of Boeing’s autonomous combat drone prototypes have reached a new milestone after taking to the skies recently in separate flights that marked the first time that the second drone has flown, and the first time the landing gear on the craft was raised and engaged.

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Following the first system’s successful, inaugural flight in February this year, the novel collaboration between Air Force and Boeing Australia has been labelled as a potential game-changer. The uncrewed stealth, multirole aircraft is a pathfinder for the integration of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence to create smart human-machine teams.According to the Department of Defence, the system has a range of some 3,700 kilometres, “helping to project airpower forward while contributing as a team with our crewed capabilities.”

The jet-powered drone is designed to work together with other RAAF combat aircraft, including the F-35A, F/A-18F, and E-7A in both defence and surveillance modes. The Loyal Wingman has flight characteristics comparable to a conventional fighter and boasts artificial intelligence and a modular design. This includes a reconfigurable nose that can quickly accommodate a variety of payloads.

Two aircraft in the air is exciting to see, according to Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts, RAAF Head of Air Force Capability, as two of the Loyal Wingman prototypes continue to excel in the flight-test program.

“This opens up significant capability agility for the Air Force, particularly with features such as the reconfigurable nose. We’re heavily engaged in the payload development and the element of surprise that it gives us in the battle space.

“Experiencing the enthusiasm of the Boeing and Air Force team reminded me of my early career testing aircraft,” AVM Roberts said.

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The recent tests are significant not only because the prototype fleet is growing, but also because it lays the foundation for demonstrating how such drones can work as part of a team. To protect and support Australia’s most valuable Defence aircraft, RAAF and Boeing have been able to investigate factors such as the level of automation and autonomy, use of artificial intelligence, and human-machine teaming concepts that will ensure Australia’s legal and ethical obligations are met.

Local defence expertise

The Loyal Wingman has been engineered using a digital twin to model its structures, systems, capabilities and full lifecycle requirements; manufactured with Boeing’s largest-ever resin-infused single composite piece; and assembled using proven advanced manufacturing processes. Dr Shane Arnott, program director of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System notes that the speed in which the Loyal Wingman was developed has been an achievement on its own.

“In the past year alone, we have made amazing strides on this aircraft, taking it from a fuselage to a finished aircraft that has undergone rigorous testing. Our focus now is on conducting a safe and secure flight-test regimen for the Loyal Wingman program,” Arnott added.

In line with the Commonwealth government’s aim to create jobs by boosting Defence industry support and investment, over 35 local companies located all over the country have worked on the Loyal Wingman project such as Whitehorse and Form 2000 – two Australian SMEs that partnered on the manufacture build-to-print components of the aircraft. Other companies include Ferra Engineering, AME Systems, Allied Data Systems and Microelectronic Technologies. Alongside Boeing, BAE Systems Australia and RUAG Australia have also contributed to the success of the program so far. The Loyal Wingman’s digital twin is refined as aircraft performance data is collected during the test flights to expand its performance envelope, which accelerated development and production.

Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld lauded the achievement – noting that it has demonstrated the benefits of collaboration between Defence and the local defence industry.

“The Loyal Wingman sets new standards for capability development and shows what collaboration between industry and Defence can achieve.

“Flight testing is increasing throughout the year, and we are on the way to teaming the Loyal Wingman aircraft with existing air power platforms,” Air Marshal Hupfeld said.

Multiplication

The Commonwealth government has bolstered investment in the Loyal Wingman program, requesting the delivery of additional aircraft just hours after the first test flight earlier this year in addition to the $40 million already invested in the program.

Boeing welcomed the government’s announcement, the enhanced contract would support the maturation of the aircraft design, evolution of current and future payloads, and create the sustainment system for the aircraft in operations according to Dr Brendan Nelson, president of Boeing Australia, New Zealand and South Pacific.

“The Australian government’s continued investment in the innovative Loyal Wingman program will create jobs and opportunities for over 35 Australian suppliers and small businesses, including BAE Systems Australia, RUAG Australia, AME Systems and Ferra Engineering,” Nelson said.

According to Defence, the investment will ensure ongoing support of the current workforce and key industries, including advanced mission system software development, high technology aircraft manufacturing and further uncrewed aircraft flight testing. Minister for Defence Industry Melissa Price has confirmed that the federal government will invest a further $115 million to procure three additional Loyal Wingman aircraft for the Royal Australian Air Force, doubling the size of the fleet. The investment also forms part of the government’s plan to accelerate Defence initiatives in the COVID-19 recovery.

“This new stage of development will deliver an increase in the advanced mission capabilities of the aircraft,” said Minister Price.

“Here is another high-flying example of how we are backing our local defence industry base, supporting and creating jobs in a range of high technology areas.”

Forward momentum

The Loyal Wingman is the first military combat aircraft to be designed, engineered and manufactured in Australia in more than 50 years. As a partner to RAAF platforms, the Loyal Wingman will be capable of supporting a range of Defence aircraft in various roles and with its cutting-edge capability. It is set to support Australia’s defence and national security objectives, but, its pivotal duty is to keep crewed capabilities out of harm’s way.

“This is what innovation is all about – working together to achieve many firsts,” AVM Roberts said.

According to Boeing Airpower Teaming System’s Dr Arnott, as RAAF and Boeing continue to test and further develop the Loyal Wingman, a key focus will be on bolstering the Airpower Teaming System’s advanced concepts through digital testing and demonstration.

“In addition to progressing the air vehicle design and support system, we will further develop the aircraft’s mission system including advanced AI decision-making capabilities and new payloads,” Arnott said.

“Continued digital engineering and significantly expanded live testing of the system will provide RAAF and Boeing with the ability to jointly take the concept to the next level, activities that are critical for us to rapidly understand how the Airpower Teaming System can be employed in the future battlespace.”

According AVM Roberts, seeing the aircraft in person for the first time during the December 2020 trials has been extraordinary.

“There is something very special about testing an aircraft that takes technology to the next level. It is iconic in its own way,” said AVM Roberts. “A year ago, this was a concept - now it’s a reality. It’s amazing to imagine and then create a new uncrewed aerial capability with our partner Boeing Australia, designed and made right here in Australia.”

This article originally appeared in the Defence Connect air special edition, which can be viewed here.

Nastasha Tupas

Nastasha Tupas

Journalist – Defence and Security, Momentum Media

Nastasha is a Journalist at Momentum Media, she reports extensively across veterans affairs, cyber security and geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific. She is a co-author of a book titled The Stories Women Journalists Tell, published by Penguin Random House. Previously, she was a Content Producer at Verizon Media, a Digital Producer for Yahoo! and Channel 7, a Digital Journalist at Sky News Australia, as well as a Website Manager and Digital Producer at SBS Australia. Nastasha started her career in media as a Video Producer and Digital News Presenter at News Corp Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Arts, major in Media, Culture and Technology; minor in Psychology from UNSW Sydney as well as a Diploma of Journalism from Macleay College.

The Loyal Wingman in a league of its own
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