The influential State of AI Report 2021, published in October, makes the alarming observation that the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) for military purposes is now moving from research into the production phase. The report highlights three indicators which it argues shows this development, one of which is the progress that the US Air Force Research Laboratory is making in testing its autonomous ‘Skyborg’ system to control military drones.
Skyborg (the name is a play on the word ‘cyborg’ – a biological lifeform that has been augmented with technology such as bionic implants) is intended to be an AI ‘brain’ capable of controlling an aircraft in flight. Initially, the technology is planned to assist a human pilot in flying the aircraft.
As is often the case with publicity material for military equipment programmes, it is not always easy to distinguish facts from hype or to penetrate the technospeak in which statements from developers are written. However, news reports and press statements show that over the past year the US Air Force has for the first time succeeded in demonstrating an “active autonomy capability” during test flights of the Skyborg system, as a first step towards being able to use the system in combat.
Official literature on the system states that Skyborg is an “autonomous aircraft teaming architecture”, consisting of a core autonomous control system (ACS): a ‘brain’ comprised of both hardware and software components which can be used to both assist the pilot of a crewed combat aircraft and fly a swarm of uncrewed drones. The system is being designed by the military IT contractor Leidos, with input from the US Air Force and other Skyborg contractors. It would allow the aircraft to autonomously avoid other aircraft, terrain, obstacles, and hazardous weather, and take off and land on its own. Read more