Boeing Australia has confirmed the completion of the first major fuselage structural assembly for the company’s first Loyal Wingman unmanned aerial system.
The aircraft is one of the three prototypes that will be developed as part of the Loyal Wingman – Advanced Development Program in partnership with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).
Plans for the Airpower Teaming System (ATS), the first high-performance military aircraft designed and built in Australia in more than 50 years, were first unveiled at the Avalon Airshow in February 2019
The Australian-designed fighter-sized unmanned system is designed to act as a ‘loyal wingman’ in conjunction with high-value assets such as the P-8A Poseidon or E-7A Wedgetail, or with combat aircraft like the F-35A or F/A-18F.
The system has been developed in conjunction with the RAAF and the Defence Science & Technology (DST) Group.
At 38 feet (11.7-metre) in length, the air vehicle is about the size of an F-16, and features advanced composite construction and radar cross-section signature management in the form of shaping, materials and aligned edges.
Digital engineering and advanced composite materials have been channelled into the program to achieve cost and agility goals for the aircraft, which is designed to use artificial intelligence in teaming with other manned and unmanned platforms.
Dr Shane Arnott, program director, Boeing Airpower Teaming System (ATS), welcomed the milestone and noted how industry participation had been critical to the program’s rapid development – with a 16-strong Australian industry team making key deliveries to date.
Key program partners include:
- BAE Systems Australia, who has delivered hardware kits, including flight control computers and navigation equipment
- RUAG Australia, who has delivered the landing gear system
- Ferra Engineering, who has delivered precision machined components and sub-assemblies to support the program
- AME Systems, who has delivered wiring looms to support the vehicle
Air Commodore Darren Goldie, RAAF director general of air combat capability, said the partnership with Boeing was central to building the Air Force’s “understanding of not just the operational implications for these sorts of vehicles, but also making us a smart customer as we consider options for manned-unmanned teaming in the coming decade”.
“Boeing is progressing very well with its development, and we look forward to seeing the final product in the coming months,” AIRCDRE Goldie said.
The first Loyal Wingman prototype will provide key lessons towards production of the ATS, which Boeing Australia has developed for the global defence market.
Customers will be able to tailor ATS sensors and systems based on their own defence and industrial objectives.
ATS features artificial intelligence to fly independently or in support of manned aircraft while maintaining a safe distance between other aircraft. It will have a range of more than 3,000 km, giving it a four to five-hour combat endurance, well beyond that of manned fighter-sized aircraft.
Designed by Boeing Phantom Works in Brisbane, the company’s largest advanced concept development office outside of the US, the ATS is the first high-performance combat aircraft of Australian origin built since the Jindivik drone of the 1950s.
Phantom Works has a team of over 200 engineers and support staff in Australia. Boeing says Australia is ideally placed to develop such a capability due to its expertise in the various engineering fields, as well as its vast airspace, government’s openness to support an indigenous defence industry, and the airspace regulator’s progressive view towards unmanned systems.
The next major milestone for the program will be weight on wheels when the fuselage structure moves from the assembly jig to the aircraft’s own landing gear to continue systems installation and functional testing.
The aircraft is expected to complete its first flight this year.
BAE Systems Australia chief executive Gabby Costigan said the company was proud to be working with Boeing in Australia to bring a new defence capability to life, “one that offers enormous potential for the RAAF as well as future export markets,” she said.
BAE Systems Australia will support the program with an unmanned flight vehicle management solution, flight vehicle simulation capability as well as delivering flight control computers and navigation equipment.
The integration of these, along with Boeing’s autonomous mission systems, brings together the two leading Australian companies in this technology area.
Earlier versions of the technologies used for this project have already supported Australian and UK autonomy programs such as Taranis, Mantis and Kingfisher UAS demonstrators.
More recently, they have been integrated in some M113 armoured vehicles in support of the Australian Army Robotics and Autonomy Strategy activities.