Autonomous Supersonic Wingmen Drones Could Be AI Enabled F-16s

The US Air force fiscal 2024 budget includes nearly $50 million to start a program called Project Venom — or Viper Experimentation and Next-gen Operations Model — to help it experiment with and refine autonomous software loaded onto six F-16s.

The Air Force wants to develop a fleet of at least 1,000 collaborative combat aircraft, or CCA, that will use autonomous capabilities to fly alongside the service’s future Next-Generation Air Dominance family of fighter systems and F-35A fighters. CCAs could carry missiles or other weapons, perform electronic warfare operations, or fly ahead of other aircraft so its sensors can provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

The Air Force plans to add autonomous code to six F-16s. Human pilots would take off with the jets but allow the software to take over midair to determine whether it work.

The US Air Force still has 936 active F16 aircraft. The computers, sensors and software only cost about $1 million per plane. If the US Air Force wanted to economize, the existing F16 fleet could be automated by about 2028 and turned into the first generation of supersonic wingmen drones. The US does not want to economize, so this would not happen unless there was some major war that forced speed and effectiveness in procurement.

The Air Force add new software and sensors to speed up the experimentation process beyond what it usually takes to certify software for flight.

“Self driving cars didn’t go from fully manual to fully automated,” Coleman said. “The Tesla [vehicles] and the other electric vehicles, they’ve traveled millions or billions of miles where they learned and figured out how to interface with a human operator and to do so safely and securely. We don’t get to skip that part in the Air Force.”

The program will build on similar efforts such as Skyborg, an artificial intelligence-driven unmanned aircraft, and the X-62A VISTA (Variable In-flight Simulator Aircraft). VISTA is a heavily adapted F-16 at Edwards Air Force Base in California, which the Air Force Research Laboratory uses to test autonomous software.

White said the Air Force is continuing to test Skyborg software in XQ-58 Valkyrie drones at Eglin.

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Brian Wang