Military

What Does USAF Manned/Unmanned F-16 Demo Mean for Drone Future?

By S.L. Fuller | April 10, 2017
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170405-N-FM530-157 MEDITERRANEAN SEA (April 5, 2017) Chief Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) Eugene Williams, assigned to the amphibious transport dock ship USS Mesa Verde (LPD 19), signals a UH-1Y Huey helicopter assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 365 (Reinforced) after it delivers supplies during a vertical replenishment. Mesa Verde is deployed with the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group to support maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brent Pyfrom/Released)

Chief Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) Eugene Williams, assigned to the amphibious transport dock ship USS Mesa Verde (LPD 19), signals a UH-1Y Huey helicopter assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 365 (Reinforced) after it delivers supplies during a vertical replenishment. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brent Pyfrom

Colonel David Walsh, program manager for Naval Air Systems Command’s (Navair) H-1, noted at Navy League’s Sea Air Space last week that the U.S. Marine Corps sees unmanned capability as a potential part of the Bell Helicopter rotorcraft’s future.

R&WI asked what that marine light attack helicopter squadron would look like, but Walsh said he was not in a position to comment. However, the U.S. Air Force and Lockheed Martin have already demonstrated manned/unmanned teaming, with the future capability perhaps not too far ahead.

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An F-16 Falcon with the Air Forces 310th Fighter Squadron takes off en route to a simulated dog fight against F/A-18 Hornets with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314 at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., March 16. The two squadrons are training their pilots in basic fighting maneuvers from March 16 to March 24 at MCAS Miramar.

An F-16 Falcon with the Air Forces 310th Fighter Squadron takes off en route to a simulated dog fight against F/A-18 Hornets with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314 at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California. Photo by Lance Cpl. Jake McClung.

Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, the Air Force Research Laboratory, U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School and Calspan Corp. successfully flew an autonomous F-16 in two demonstrations, Lockheed Martin said. This two-week demonstration took place at the Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Success depended on three key objectives: the ability to autonomously plan and execute air-to-ground strike missions based on mission priorities and available assets; the ability to dynamically react to a changing threat environment during an air-to-ground strike mission while automatically managing contingencies for capability failures, route deviations and loss of communication; and a fully compliant USAF Open Mission Systems software integration environment allowing rapid integration of software components developed by multiple providers.

An experimental F-16 acting as a surrogate unmanned combat air vehicle carried out an air-to-ground strike mission during the demonstration. It had to autonomously react to what Lockheed Martin called a “dynamic threat environment.” The first demonstration focused on advanced vehicle control. The F-16 autonomously flew in formation with a lead aircraft, conducted the attack mission and then automatically rejoined the lead aircraft after completion. The aircraft was linked with Lockheed Martin’s automatic collision avoidance system.

"The Have Raider II demonstration team pushed the boundaries of autonomous technology and put a fully combat-capable F-16 in increasingly complex situations to test the system's ability to adapt to a rapidly changing operational environment," said Shawn Whitcomb, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works Loyal Wingman program manager. "This is a critical step to enabling future Loyal Wingman technology development and operational transition programs."

In November, Lockheed Martin demonstrated how rotary-wing drones can work in operational collaboration. A Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-MAX, Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft and Indago — along with a Desert Hawk 3.1 — worked together to conduct search and rescue, firefighting, and location operations.

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