Boeing has unveiled a prototype of its Australian-made drone.

The 11.5-metre-long, artificially intelligent device is the first military aircraft to be designed, engineered and manufactured in Australia in more than 50 years.

The first of three prototypes will now move onto ground testing, followed by test flights later this year.

The high-tech ‘Loyal Wingman’ drone is not remote-controlled – it uses artificial intelligence to fly itself, designed to assist both manned and unmanned aircraft in mid-air.

In the international market, it will be known as the Boeing Airpower Teaming System (BATS).

It was engineered using an advanced ‘digital twin’ to model its structures, systems and capabilities, and was manufactured from one of the largest resin-infused single composite pieces ever produced.

Boeing says that artificial intelligence (AI) can provide a level of autonomy that works as a force multiplier for existing manned combat aircraft.

The AI drones will directed by little more than a point-and-click desktop or screen-top style interface. They will automate much of their processes, leaving human controllers to concentrate on a bigger tactical picture.

The project is a cooperative effort between Boeing Australia and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), and has moved quickly since it was announced just 14 months ago.

It is the first time that Boeing has completed a design from scratch outside the United States, and the first ‘clean sheet’ build for the RAAF in over half a century.

The drones may have the most high-tech nose in the world.

A major feature of the Loyal Wingman system is a nose section that can be rapidly swapped between missions, giving the drone new capabilities depending on its mission, while the core airframe stays exactly the same.

The plan is for the primary sensors and technology payloads on aircraft to be tailored in groups for whatever mission is at hand. Not only would each individual unit have variable capabilities, but they can be outfitted in groups to that collectively, the swarm has more features than any single aircraft could carry.

It also means that various operators of the aircraft can design and build their own unique payloads for the nose.

One of the major objectives of the program is to be affordable. As part of this goal, the prototypes are intended to demonstrate new automated production techniques on an assembly line that is itself a proof of concept.

The Loyal Wingman’s entire wing section is made out of just two large pieces, one for the upper wing and one lower wing.

They are made of an advanced out of kiln resin-infusion process pioneered on the Boeing 787. The rest of the unmanned jet is made through advanced composite manufacturing techniques to lower cost and time of production, while also being strong, corrosion-resistant, and light-weight.

Chief of the RAAF, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, said; “This project is an excellent example of innovation through collaboration and what can be achieved working together with defence industry. This demonstrates the importance of the relationship Air Force has with Boeing Australia and defence industry more broadly”.

“I look forward to exploring the capabilities this aircraft may bring to our existing fleet in the future.”

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