The pilotless "Loyal Wingman" flew over the Australian desert displaying potential for new approaches to military strategy. Several countries are developing similar projects, enticed by lower costs and reduced risks.
The Royal Australian Air Force and Boeing have teamed up for their first test flight of a pilotless fighter-like jet in South Australia. The "Loyal Wingman" provides new military strategies through its autonomous technology. Australia and the aerospace giant announced Tuesday the successful flight, which took place on Saturday.
Loyal Wingman took off under its own power and flew on a predetermined route over the Australian desert, before flying at various different speeds and altitudes to test its systems and demonstrating the performance of design.
The fact that the jet is functional and effective without a pilot is key to new approaches in military strategy — with this particular uncrewed aircraft designed to provide air support to a human pilot in another plane.
"The heart of this program is the autonomous systems, being a part of a manned, unmanned team approach," said the chief of the Royal Australian Air Force, Mel Hupfeld.
The fighter-like jet is 11.6 meters long and has a nautical mile range of 3,704 km (roughly 2,300 miles). It can carry weapons and provide protection for more expensive manned fighter jets.
The success and relatively low costs of autonomous technology has attracted the attention of other militaries. Britain signed a $42 million contract with the Belfast unit of Spirit AeroSystems for a similar type of pilotless aircraft.
Along with Australia and Britain, the US is also investing in pilotless fighter jets. The US Air Force awarded a multi-million dollar contract to Boeing in December to produce unmanned aerial prototypes that can team up with piloted jets.
It is the first military plane to be designed and manufactured in Australia in more than 50 years. "A year ago it was a concept — and now it is reality," the Royal Australian Air Force wrote on Twitter.
Australia plans to invest $89 million to acquire three more Loyal Wingman and, according to Boeing airpower teaming program director Shane Arnott, three Loyal Wingman aircraft would be used for teaming flights this year.
"It is a milestone for Australia, for the Boeing Company, and for the Royal Australian Air Force," said President of Boeing Australia Dr. Brendan Nelson, in a video released by Boeing.