Photo © Boeing

Australia will acquire three Boeing Loyal Wingman unmanned aircraft to serve as concept demonstrators for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), as the company officially rolled out the first of the Australian-designed and -built aircraft this morning.

The Loyal Wingman, which is officially known as the Airpower Teaming System (ATS), uses artificial intelligence to extend the capabilities of manned and unmanned platforms and is Boeing’s largest investment in an unmanned aircraft outside of the United States.

The unmanned air vehicle has a wingspan of 24 feet (7.3 metres) and is capable of speeds in the high-subsonic regime to keep up with a typical manned aircraft strike package, which Dr. Shane Arnott, Program Director of Boeing’ Airpower Teaming System, said was a key design consideration.

“This is a truly historic moment for our country and for Australian defence innovation,” said Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison. “The Loyal Wingman will be pivotal to exploring the critical capabilities our Air Force needs to protect our nation and its allies into the future.”

Speaking to reporters in a conference call, Air Vice-Marshal Catherine Roberts, Head of Air Force Capability at the RAAF, said the three Loyal Wingman being acquired by Australia will be used as concept demonstrators to work out how to best integrate drones with fighter jets and other combat aircraft

The missions the RAAF will look at during this concept demonstration phase include acting as an escort for high-value assets such as the E-7A wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft, along with other types of missions.

She added that there has interest from overseas in the type, with the United States and United Kingdom named as having shown interest.

Arnott confirmed that the first Loyal Wingman will now move into the ground testing phase, followed by taxi tests leading to its first flight later this year, with full production to start by the middle of the decade.

The Loyal Wingman will have a “snap-on, snap-off” nose for quick payload change for faster turnarounds, allowing the ATS to be reconfigured for different missions within hours to keep with the mission cycles for other elements of a typical air package.

Boeing said the roomy nose has 90,000 square inches (1,500 litres) of space inside for payload purposes, although it declined to go into detail what kind of payload packages the Loyal Wingman can be fitted with.

Photo © Boeing

Autonomy will be a big part in the operation of the Loyal Wingman to reduce the workload of its human controllers flying its manned partners. The unmanned aircraft will typically work in teams of four aircraft including its manned controllers, although the number could potentially go up to as many as 16, added Arnott.

The fabrication process for the Loyal Wingman saw Boeing make extensive use of resin-infused composite structures, including one that is the largest piece Boeing has ever manufactured using that technique for the Loyal Wingman’s top and bottom wings, which Arnott says simplifies and reduces the costs of the manufacturing process.

The program will see several other Australian companies participating in different forms. Boeing has enlisted more than 35 suppliers throughout Australia for the program, including RUAG Australia and BAE Systems Australia.

The former has been tapped to supply the landing gear systems for the air vehicles, while the latter will provide the unmanned flight vehicle management solution and simulation capability, and is also delivering flight control computers and navigation equipment.




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