Boeing Co said on Wednesday it had completed tests with five surrogate jets operating autonomously in a team in Australia, where it is developing an unmanned fighter-like jet designed to cooperate with manned aircraft.
The 10 days of tests were part of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System programme, which has developed prototype “Loyal Wingman” aircraft with the Royal Australian Air Force that can carry weapons and shield manned fighter jets.
“With the size, number and speed of aircraft used in the test, this is a very significant step for Boeing and industry in the progress of autonomous mission systems technology,” said Emily Hughes, director of Boeing’s Phantom Works International.
Defence contractors are investing increasingly in autonomous technology as militaries around the world look for a cheaper and safer way to maximise their resources.
Hughes said the tests in Australia demonstrated success in applying artificial intelligence algorithms to “teach” the aircraft’s brain to understand what was required of it.
“The data link capabilities enabled the aircraft to communicate with the other platforms so that they could collaborate to achieve a mission,” she said.
The Loyal Wingman prototype is expected to make its first flight this year and Boeing sees mass production likely happening by the middle of the decade.
The Loyal Wingman aircraft is 38 feet long (11.6 metres), has a 2,000 nautical mile (3,704 km) range and a nose that can be removed to fit various payloads.
The 3.4 metre surrogate jets reached speeds of up to 270 kilometres (167 miles) per hour, Boeing said in a statement.