Is this the first step to Skynet? Boeing this week has unveiled an autonomous fighter jet for the Australian air force that can fly in formation with manned planes to play a role the company calls “Loyal Wingman.”

Note that they don’t call it a “killer drone,” but it sure looks like that. The 38-foot long unmanned jet can be configured for various roles, says Boeing. Those include reconnaissance and surveillance missions, as well as electronic warfare.

Not quite a killer robot

By all indications, the Boeing Loyal Wingman will not act entirely autonomously. They won’t select and attack targets in a combat situation, for instance. Instead, they will be remotely piloted, but in a more hands-off manner than typical drones. An extensive article in The Drive likens it to a “point and click” experience. Using artificial intelligence, these drones will be able to fly in formation with other manned craft—be they fighter jets or other aircraft that the drones are protecting. They will have the intelligence to be in the right place at the right time during a mission. So instead of having to control every aspect of flight, a remote pilot can focus on giving them overall mission instructions, and the drones will figure out the rest of the navigation on their own.

This could include taking the lead in the hairiest part of a fight. There could be times when the Boeing Loyal Wingman goes in first, to minimize risk to a pilot as well as the loss of a very expensive piloted plane. Boeing hasn’t named the price of the Loyal Wingman, but it’s thought to be just a few million dollars, vs. tens of millions for a fighter jet. (The popular US F35A, for instance, runs about $80 million apiece.)

They will also serve as a force multiplier, for instance, flying in a support role to protect large intelligence-gathering planes or tankers. (The control centers for the drones might well be aboard the larger planes.) The wingmen could take the place of some or all of the manned fighter jets in the escort, saving those resources for other missions. With a range of 2000 miles, the Boeing Loyal Wingman will be able to support some extensive missions.

Australian made

Boeing is a US-based aerospace contractor, and the bulk of its military work is in conjunction with the US military. But the Loyal Wingman is a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) project. The plane has been designed and manufactured down under, the first time such a development has happened in Australia in 50 years. (It’s also the first time ever that Boeing has developed an entire military project from scratch outside the US.)

It’s not clear yet what ownership the RAAF has over the project or even how much of the bill it’s footed. The Australian government says that it’s put up $40 million for the project, but Boeing hasn’t revealed its contribution. Chances are Boeing would want to structure the rights to the program in a way that also lets it sell to the far-larger US military.

The speed of the Australia operation is impressive. Boeing and the RAAF just announced the project about 15 months ago, and now the first three planes are rolling out. These are more than prototypes, which are hand-built. According to The Drive, they came off an automated production line, as a proof of concept for how the planes can be mass-produced.

And Boeing hasn’t been waiting on the first models to start tests. It’s already been flying physical scale models as well as extensively testing “digital twin” virtual models of the Boeing Loyal Wingman. The first flight of the actual drone hasn’t been scheduled, but Boeing and the RAAF say it will happen by February 2021.

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