Opinion: Unmanned Aircraft Ready To Become True Teammates

Boeing attritable aircraft
Credit: Boeing

Attritable systems are offering a new narrative in the world of unmanned aerial systems (UAS). What if you could take multiple mission-capable unmanned assets, available at a low cost, and team them with manned aircraft offering faster battlefield coordination, real-time intelligence analysis and machine-speed decision making? The idea of piloted aircraft flying in close coordination with autonomous aircraft enhancing mission capability is no longer a theoretical concept, as these aircraft are now being built and tested. However, getting these assets into the hands of airmen requires the right combination and balance of four objectives: affordability, mission capability, autonomy and operational flexibility.

Attritable aircraft are different from other UAS both in design and in how they could be used in the future fight. To achieve affordability targets, every element of a system’s design must be attacked while balancing both operational needs and regulatory stakeholders to ensure effective and safe mission operations. You must look at producing attritable aircraft differently, in a way that keeps costs at a minimum for a system that by definition could be eventually expendable if mission needs dictate. The question then becomes: What is good enough at the right price point? That is the needed balance, as the assets can’t be so cheap that they aren’t competitive in the fight, but they also can’t be so exotic that no one can afford to lose one.

Industry is already finding ways to reduce costs without making capability trades. Using advanced and additive manufacturing, streamlining engineering processes, refining design approaches and techniques, and applying modeling and simulation can contribute to lowering overall acquisition and operational costs while improving the capability. These design and development process improvements allow for the right balance of cost and capability. That balance is further enabled by getting the teaming aspect right.

Achieving the correct level of autonomy is crucial. The attritable system must be able to manage its own workload while enhancing the manned aircraft capabilities and not detracting from them. Artificial intelligence technologies and robust communications are critical to enabling smart teaming assets to fly independently or in support of manned aircraft with minimal supervision. The algorithms and behaviors not only need to be matured but also extensively tested in both the lab and the field to provide confirmation of a manageable workload in the most stressing scenarios.

A modular, open-architecture design is another aspect an attritable asset can offer, allowing users to rapidly tailor the most important parts of the aircraft—the sensors, systems and payloads—to meet defense and industrial goals. The more flexible or modular the system, the more capability the teamed aircraft pilots will have at their fingertips. A highly flexible and adaptable system allows the user to manage threats rapidly while not impeding performance or readiness. Flexibility also defines the types of missions the aircraft could perform. While initially conceptualized to assist fighters with counter-air, strike, reconnaissance and electronic attack, attritable systems could also enable new missions for larger combat aircraft such as tankers, bombers and maritime patrol aircraft. This force-multiplier approach frees up manned fighters for other missions while providing defense to critical assets.

Unlike other unmanned platforms, the true value of an attritable aircraft will only be fully recognized in the hands of the warfighter. The sooner these systems move from the lab to the field, the sooner the appreciation of the partnership will be achieved. Attritable aircraft can bring advanced design and flight characteristics, deeply integrated autonomy, open-architecture systems for extension, modular payloads and rapid reuse, all supported by a conventional-takeoff-and-landing approach suitable for a range of expeditionary missions. Attritable systems are designed to achieve the force quantities necessary for future mission needs, so moving rapidly beyond research and development to operational capability is paramount.

Autonomous systems and technologies can offer game-changing leaps in terms of speed, affordability and quantity for global defense customers looking to maximize and extend force structures. Attritable teaming aircraft are here and ready to be mission partners in the future fight.

Jerad Hayes is the senior director for Autonomous Aviation and Technology at Boeing.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.


1 Comment
While a 'conventional-takeoff-and-landing approach' is simpler to implement. In any peer to peer conflict the facilities required for such a con-op are almost certain to be severely degraded, if not obliterated in the first hours of conflict.