USAF completes flight tests on Skyborg testbed

Last month, the USAF’s Emerging Technology Combined Test Force (ET-CTF) completed flight tests on its new autonomous aircraft testbed in support of its ongoing Skyborg project.

Five flights took place at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB), California, in March. These tests aim to ultimately provide the service with an autonomous software testing package. The ET-CTF team – a part of the 412th Test Wing – has had to rework its upcoming flight-test schedule due to the outbreak of COVID-19 reducing personnel numbers.

In conducting the tests, the air arm employed a Bob Violett Models (BVM) ‘Renegade’ commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS), turbine-powered jet aircraft – which falls under the US Department of Defense’s Group 3 classification of unmanned aerial systems (UAS). This categorises autonomous jets weighing more than 55lbs (24.9kg), but less than 1,320lbs (598.7kg). The ‘Renegade’ is also able to fly at speeds of 230mph (370km/h).

Lt Col David Aparicio, ET-CTF director, said that the recent test flights proved the viability of a surrogate small UAS aircraft with higher speeds, greater endurance and a larger payload capacity than has been used in previous test campaigns. “As the 412th Test Wing continues to seek ways to support the 2018 National Defense Strategy, affordable high-speed surrogate aircraft like the ‘Renegade’ are invaluable to lowering the risk to future autonomy research and development [programmes].”

ET-CTF Renegade Skybord Testbed [USAF/Chris Dyer]
ET-CTF's BVM Renegade platform parked on a dry lake bed prior to a test flight at Edwards AFB, California, on March 4. USAF/Chris Dyer

Skyborg is a variation of artificial intelligence (AI) which is being developed by the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to allow engineers and researchers to further the service’s autonomous capabilities. As per the current plan, the AFRL plans for Skyborg to reach an early operational capability in 2023. Alongside this, the ET-CTF is producing new software for testing unmanned aircraft and to make them safer.

The ET-CTF team and its mission partners produce software testbeds that push flight safety envelopes to help develop test safety procedures and requirements for the Skyborg programme. In doing so, engineers are able to integrate new software and install updates to the aircraft and then study its flight characteristics and behaviour, ensuring the computer codes work as intended and produce no harm to the jet.

Despite COVID-19 causing a disruption in the ongoing testing schedule, the ET-CTF and its mission partners are continuing to advance the autonomous flight test programme. Engineers and operators are furthering development test plans and procedures remotely, creating innovative procedures to protect the team whilst providing a ready test capability.

John Wilson, ET-CTF deputy director, explained that due to travel limitations, the team is planning and preparing for future test flights, whilst working on furthering its own skill sets. He said: “There are plans to continue to fly the ‘Renegade’ in the future, but the flights are on hold due to COVID and our current minimum manning posture… There may be [an] opportunity for continued training as ET-CTF works to maintain pilot currency.”