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‘Skyborg’ could let F-35 and F-15 fighter jets control their own companion drones

The US Air Force hopes that the XQ58-A Valkyrie drone wingman might someday accompany the F-35 and a new version of the F-15 fighter jet, according to Defense News.

The aircraft is designed to fill a role known as “loyal wingman” — imagined as a low-cost platform that would be controlled by a parent aircraft to accomplish a variety of tasks, such as flying ahead to scout out terrain, or absorb enemy fire in the event that they’re attacked.

The Air Force is reportedly talking with defense manufacturers Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which manufactures the fighter jets, about integrating the platforms. Will Roper, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, told Defense News that a forthcoming upgrade to the F-35 represents a “wonderful opportunity” to pair up the prototype drone. “We might also have an opportunity to do this as part of F-15EX,” he added. The drone-fighter pairing isn’t expected to happen any time soon — the F-35 has to first be upgraded, and the XQ58-A Valkyrie has only completed the first of five test flights.

The reports also highlights that Roper informed lawmakers that the Valkyrie would be part of a larger artificial intelligence program called Skyborg, which — aside from a terrible name — would be designed to help pilots as a sort of on-board assistant, and has been compared to something like R2-D2 from the Star Wars films.

Earlier this spring, the Air Force successfully tested the jet-powered drone for the first time over the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona. The XQ58-A Valkyrie can carry a small payload of bombs and comes with a 2,500 mile range, although it can’t fly as fast as the aircraft that it’s designed to accompany. When the Air Force first began testing the Valkyrie, it wasn’t yet clear which aircraft it might be paired with. A key appeal for the vehicle is that it would be cheap to produce in large numbers: they will reportedly cost “a couple million bucks” each, which is extremely cheap compared to a larger, crewed fighter jet.

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