No fewer than 13 companies will compete for their share of a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars in total to help develop various technologies that could go into “loyal wingman” type unmanned aircraft and autonomous unmanned combat air vehicles as part of the U.S. Air Force Skyborg program. The service is meanwhile seeking to begin work on a drone using Skyborg’s AI technologies before the end of the year.
The contract awards are for the Skyborg Prototyping, Experimentation and Autonomy Development portion of the project, or SPEAD, work under which is expected to continue until 2026.
As well as working on Skyborg “missionized prototypes,” the latest contracts encompass subsequent experimentation and development of autonomous capabilities, including operational trials.
The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC) issued this second round of awards under the indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contract, which has a shared funding ceiling of $400 million, on September 29, 2020.
The following vendors are now among those competing for individual task orders under the overarching Skyborg contract:
• AeroVironment Inc., Simi Valley, California
• Autonodyne LLC, Boston, Massachusetts
• BAE System Controls Inc., Arlington, Virginia
• Blue Force Technologies Inc., Morrisville, North Carolina
• Fregata System Inc., St. Louis, Missouri
• Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, Fort Worth, Texas
• NextGen Aeronautics Inc., Torrance, California
• Sierra Technical Services, Tehachapi, California
• Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas
These companies join Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics, and Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems, which had been the first to receive awards under the larger Skyborg contract in July. This all follows a formal call for proposals issued in May.
“This second phase of awards establishes a diverse and competitive vendor pool by adding several non-traditional and traditional contractors we saw as important additions to the effort,” explained Air Force Brigadier General Dale White, the Program Executive Officer for Fighters and Advanced Aircraft and one of the Skyborg program leaders.
The next milestone for Skyborg, which was first unveiled publicly in March 2019, will include air vehicle prototype designs, which the Air Force expects to begin developing later this year.
The idea of having multiple contractors has been baked into the Skyborg program from the outset and the AFLCMC has said it wants to “award as many IDIQ contracts as practicable, and to include additional contractors over time.”
Compared to modern manned fighter jets, for example, the threshold to entry in the development of attritable drones is significantly lower. This factor should ultimately be reflected in a drone, or family of drones, that comes in at a comparatively low cost. By their nature, the Skyborg systems should be affordable enough that commanders are willing to use them in higher-risk scenarios from which they might not return.
The Skyborg program is also beginning to show possible parallels with the Air Force’s much-discussed “Digital Century Series” concept for the development of future combat aircraft, which you can read about in more detail in this War Zone piece. Like that initiative, the service says that the second phase of Skyborg awards demonstrates “continuous efforts to identify applicable technology and expeditiously inject it into the program to meet warfighter needs.”