Air Force launches search for AI-enabled ‘Skyborg’ drones

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If you make artificial intelligence-enabled drones, the Air Force is looking for you.

The department’s Life Cycle Management Center has issued a solicitation that seeks participants in the new “Skyborg” program, which would pair low-cost unmanned systems with fighter jets to extend the military’s air power. Potential awardees could see up to $400 million through an indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract, according to the announcement.

The statement of work is not public, but a summary of the program outlines a futuristic team of “integrated” systems that puts “manned/unmanned teaming” in the sky.

“The intent of Skyborg is to integrate an autonomy mission system core and suite of services … with multiple low-cost air vehicle systems, each designed to perform one or more mission types,” the solicitation states.

This announcement is the first of many to come. As the program is developed, the Air Force plans to meet with potential awardees during industry day events that will focus on developing low-cost unmanned aircraft and then pump out more solicitations on an “aggressive timeline,” the BAA states. The Air Force issued an initial request for information last March.

The manned/unmanned team design is one that has proven to be attractive to other services. The Army is “aggressively pursuing” the concept for a new ground-vehicle system, despite significant past challenges to developing the technology.

The Air Force says it is making the program a priority and trying to build the system as modularly as possible, allowing for seamless future software and hardware updates, according to the announcement.

“This system will allow rapid software updates and integration of new technology to field capabilities to defeat emerging threats,” the BAA states.

Building the program with modality in mind is a new approach to systems acquisition for the Defense Department. Previously, the department has faltered when software upgrades are stymied by the acquisition process. The DOD’s deputy CIO, Peter Ranks, has been pushing for a decoupled approach to the software and hardware of advanced systems like Skyborg.

“We are going to need software to glue those things together,” he said during FedScoop’s IT Modernization summit in March.

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Air Force, artificial intelligence (AI), Drones / UAS, Skyborg
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