Boeing’s Loyal Wingman takes flight, as Australia commits to more aircraft

In partnership with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), Boeing Australia successfully completed the first flight of its Airpower Teaming System (ATS) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) on February 27, just days before the nation’s government announced it will co-develop three more aircraft.

Announced by the company on March 2, the platform’s maiden flight took place three days earlier under the supervision of a Boeing test pilot from a ground control station at the RAAF’s Woomera Range Complex in South Australia. The sortie marked a major milestone in the continued development of the ATS, as well as being the first flight of an Australian designed and manufactured military aircraft in more than 50 years.

Boeing ATS [Commonwealth of Australia - Department of Defence/Cpl Craig Barrett]
Boeing's first Airpower Teaming System (ATS) prototype - serial PRV-001 - completed its maiden flight from the RAAF's Woomera Range Complex in South Australia on February 27, 2021. Commonwealth of Australia - Department of Defence/Cpl Craig Barrett

The first flight follows a series of taxi tests, which validated the platform’s ground handling, navigation, control and pilot interface before it was able to grace the skies. Boeing states that during the maiden flight, the ATS successfully took off under its own power before flying a pre-determined route at different altitudes and speeds to verify the aircraft’s performance and flight functionalities.

AVM Cath Roberts, head of Air Force Capability with the RAAF, said: “A year ago this was a concept – now it’s a reality – it’s amazing to imagine and then create a new uncrewed aerial capability with our partner Boeing Australia, designed and made right here in Australia. This knowledge will help Defence make more informed decisions about acquiring uncrewed capabilities and systems, including how they can complement our future force structure.”

Referred to as a ‘Loyal Wingman’ platform, the ATS has been developed with low acquisition and operational costs in mind. It has been designed to serve as an attritable unmanned force multiplier to augment manned combat aircraft in the battlespace. The UAV is 38ft 4in in length, boasts a projected operational range of 3,700km and will be integrated with artificial intelligence (AI), allowing it to fly independently and autonomously in support of manned aircraft.

Boeing ATS [Commonwealth of Australia - Department of Defence/Cpl Craig Barrett]
During the February 27 flight test, the ATS prototype successfully took off under its own power before it's flight functionalities and performance were tested at various speeds and altitudes along a pre-determined route over South Australia. Commonwealth of Australia - Department of Defence/Cpl Craig Barrett

While it has been designed around the growing Loyal Wingman concept, the ATS will also feature a number of sensor packages, allowing it to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), tactical early warning and aerial scouting missions. The platform will also be used to absorb enemy fire in protection of manned aircraft, if attacked.

“The Loyal Wingman’s first flight is a major step in this long-term, significant project for the air force and Boeing Australia, and we’re thrilled to be a part of the successful test. The Loyal Wingman project is a pathfinder for the integration of autonomous systems and AI to create smart human-machine teams. Through this project we are learning how to integrate these new capabilities to complement and extend air combat and other missions,” AVM Roberts added.

Boeing states that the process of designing, producing and test flying the first ATS prototype was completed during a three-year period. It adds that the ATS team leveraged model-based engineering techniques, such as a digital twin to conduct digital flight test missions. The project has been supported by more than 35 Australia-based industry teams.

Boeing ATS [Commonwealth of Australia - Department of Defence]
The maiden flight of Boeing's ATS marked a historic milestone for Australian military aviation. The sortie marked the first time in 50 years that a military aircraft that had been designed and manufactured in the 'Land Down Under' had taken to the skies. Commonwealth of Australia - Department of Defence

This first prototype will serve as a foundation for Boeing’s ATS family, which the company seeks to market to various military customers around the globe. The company adds that “additional Loyal Wingman aircraft are currently under development, with plans for teaming flights scheduled for later this year.”

Boeing Australia also revealed on March 2 that the Australian government will co-develop an additional three ATS platforms, increasing the number of examples being produced to six. The agreement is valued at US$115m over a three-year period.

The company states that “the contract will support the maturation of the aircraft design, evolution of current and future payloads and create the sustainment system for the aircraft in operations.” It adds that the deal will also further the progress of the ATS’ advanced concepts through digital testing and demonstration.

Boeing ATS [Commonwealth of Australia - Department of Defence/Cpl Craig Barrett]
The ATS is Boeing and the RAAF's vision of the Loyal Wingman concept - something which is growing in prominence as more platforms from other manufacturers and countries enter the development phase. The concept envisages the use of low-cost, attritable unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that serve as a force multiplier in the battlespace, augmenting manned combat aircraft and having the ability to exploit AI technologies to operate autonomously. Commonwealth of Australia - Department of Defence - Cpl Craig Barrett 

Dr Shane Arnott, programme director of Boeing’s ATS, said: “In addition to progressing the air vehicle design and support system, we will further develop the aircraft’s mission system, including advanced AI decision-making capabilities and new payloads.

“Continued digital engineering and [the] significantly expanded live testing of the system will provide [the] RAAF and Boeing with the ability to jointly take the concept to the next level, activities that are critical for us to rapidly understand how the ATS can be employed in the future battlespace,” he added.