AI-enabled Valkyrie drone teases future of US Air Force fleet

by Tommy Grant
How will AI drive defense tech and priorities in the coming years?

WASHINGTON — The testing of sophisticated software aboard an XQ-58A Valkyrie drone will influence how the U.S. Air Force develops and deploys autonomous technology in the near future, according to a service official.

The Kratos-made UAV flew a three-hour sortie in July near Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, relying for the first time on artificial intelligence algorithms. Its programming was matured over millions of hours in simulation and digital environments; in flights with an experimental F-16 jet known as the X-62 VISTA; and other events, according to the service.

Col. Tucker “Cinco” Hamilton, chief of AI testing and operations, on Jan. 16 said the Valkyrie proved to be “a great test bed” and one capable of illuminating novel approaches to traditional tasks.

“We have to give it some space as it’s doing its maneuvering and just recognize that it is a computer-controlled … aircraft, and it may do things differently than a human,” Hamilton said during a livestreamed event hosted by C4ISRNET. “We need to recognize there’s a huge benefit there — some things we are doing right now may not be the most efficient, most effective way of doing things.”

Tinkering with the Valkyrie builds upon years of the Air Force’s Skyborg program and is closely linked to its more recent effort for collaborative combat aircraft, or CCA. The service in the coming years wants to pair human pilots with CCAs to afford greater flexibility and firepower.

The uncrewed aircraft could execute a variety of assignments: conducting reconnaissance, gathering intelligence, jamming signals, serving as decoys and striking targets with their own missiles. Officials have said CCAs could range in cost and complexity, with some being expensive and precious while others could be easily sacrificed in combat.

“If I’m flying around in my fighter, I can imagine a world where I have multiple drones able to conduct some missions,” Hamilton said. “The key, though, is we’ve got to get the human-machine teaming right. It’s all about that. AI and this autonomy — it’s got to empower the decision-maker.”

Robert Winkler, a vice president at Kratos, said in September that the Air Force and the Defense Department have communicated their desires for a fleet of robotic wingmen. David Alexander, the president of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, which makes the Gray Eagle and Reaper drones, has said the same thing.

The Air Force’s fiscal 2024 budget blueprint included at least $392 million for CCA work. Billions of dollars are forecast to be spent in the long term.

Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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