Boeing’s Phantom Works Wants ‘Untethered’ Loyal Wingman
FARNBOROUGH—Having demonstrated its technological ability for uncrewed teaming systems with Australia’s Ghost Bat, Boeing is using its secretive Phantom Works arm to study the ability of future similar programs to operate independently of a connected crewed aircraft and be on call when needed.
The MQ-28A Ghost Bat, previously known as the Airpower Teaming System, is a joint development program with the Royal Australian Air Force that has produced two aircraft that are currently flying. The development has led a global trend of studying uncrewed systems that connect to crewed combat aircraft to carry more sensors, weapons and assist in a fight.
While this aircraft was built in Australia, Steve Nordlund, vice president and general manager of Phantom Works, says it is applicable across the globe, including in the U.S. and Europe. “It is designed in a way that we want to look at it from a global perspective,” he says during a briefing here at the Farnborough Airshow, where Boeing’s older F-15E is on display.
Beyond Ghost Bat, Phantom Works is looking at making these loyal wingman aircraft more independent and able to connect to other aircraft when needed.
“Our concept around that is that it’s not about a platform and surrounding that platform with a swarm of UAVs. We believe in swarm technology, but what we really want to be is untethered from a platform and to have the autonomous vehicle go where it’s needed,” Nordlund says.
This is a “little bit of a shift” in mindset from previous development, he says.
“So, if there’s an aircraft in a different vicinity that has a need, the unmanned system can respond to that,” he says. “So that interoperability piece becomes really important, the level of autonomy becomes really important, how that hand off happens is really important. So those are a lot of the things that we’re working on both procedurally as well as the technology to enable it.”
These efforts from Phantom Works coincide with major global efforts in the realm of loyal wingman plans, with U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall designating two systems—one for the Next-Generation Air Dominance platform and another for the Northrop Grumman B-21 bomber—as imperative, and UK Royal Air Force Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston laying out a new plan for “scalable uncrewed systems.”
Boeing points out that while many other companies have plans, its Ghost Bat and the MQ-25 autonomous tanker are flying.
“This is not concept stuff,” Rik Geiersbach, Boeing Defense Space and Security’s vice president for strategy, told reporters at the Farnborough International Airshow. “You guys are going to go around to a lot of the [companies] and somebody’s going to introduce [something]: ‘Oh, I’ve got this concept for a loyal wingman.’ This guy’s flying around, the MQ-25 is flying around.”