Defense Speak Interpreted: Your Best Friend is a Skyborg?

Suddenly the term “Skyborg” is popping up in Air Force publications, and if you are an Air Force pilot, your future best friend may be a Skyborg. To understand the concept behind the term, we need to cover a bit of weapons strategy for the Air Force, where program managers are trying to find an intermediate between two weapons concepts:

  1. Planes with human pilots who go on missions and always return to base. This implies weapons that use human-endurable take-offs, meaning longer runways to come up to speed, and longer runways to land. Cargo space is traded out for human support—oxygen for high altitude, displays and instrumentation for human guidance, fuel to get home, etc.  However, the planes can be huge with enormous payloads, since they are always coming back.  
  2. Single-use munitions which never come back—missiles. Their payload can be the biggest part of total weight since they just need one-way fuel. They may be steered remotely by humans, but never in person. The abhorrent “kamikaze” experiment was the only example I can think of for single-use piloted planes.

The Air Force is focusing its Skyborg program on the concept of “attritable,” based on the concept of “attrition.” This is a concept where the munition usually comes back for maintenance and re-loading but is designed for some acceptable losses on its missions. One concept would be, perhaps, 10 or more missions. If this is done without a human pilot, there are several advantages:

Short take-off and parachute landing that would be hard on a human body has:

  • A high payload-to-weight ratio
  • A cheaper production cost for smaller, shorter life-time munitions, which is perhaps the most important
  • Best of all, the Skyborg can be assigned to dangerous missions where the expected loss of human life is deemed too high   

You may ask how a Skyborg is different from the “Loyal Wingman” program that I detailed in my May 2020 column. The Loyal Wingman program implies a more extensive artificial intelligence-enabled “drone” that can do most anything that a piloted fighter plane can do. This higher capability implies a much higher expense—meaning that Loyal Wingman is more of an “always returns” weapon. Perhaps best of all, visions of Skyborg imply that many of the weapons can be deployed together—more of a “swarm” of highly capable drones. As you will see in my descriptions of the companies entering the Skyborg program, a starting point is the armed drone programs presently deployed, carrying names such as Predator, Gray Eagle, and Reaper.   

fritz_skyborg_700.jpg

The U.S. Air Force places such importance on the Skyborg program that it has designated it as one of its “Vanguard” programs for development. These programs seek to integrate many technologies that create very complex solutions from a variety of disciplines. They intend to quickly transform future combat capability while meeting Defense budget cost targets.  

The other two Vanguard technologies besides Skyborg are “Golden Horde”—a communication systems integration approach between a variety of weapons systems that gets them to act together. There is also the NTS-3 (Navigation Technology Satellite-3) with upgraded positional and timing accuracy.  Obviously, GPS is critical to many day-to-day technologies besides weapons systems.  

The term Skyborg originates from a computer game of the mid-1990s. Wikipedia provides this definition:

“Skyborg: Into the Vortex was a CD-ROM science fiction computer game released in 1995 by the trading card company SkyBox International, Inc. and created by American studio Fringe Multimedia. Players assume the role of “Skyborg,” a cyborg in the year 2025, on a dangerously overpopulated Earth low on food. Dr. Sinclair Barton has created a torus-shaped pocket universe to alleviate this problem. You must enter this universe and travel from planet to planet gathering clues to figure out what has gone wrong and where Dr. Barton is.” [1]

Apparently, the concept of the game was better than actually playing the game. Interestingly, the 1995 game is set in 2025—really not so far in our own future. However, we are way behind in this fantasy inter-planetary space stuff.

The three companies awarded contracts for the first Skyborg prototypes are Boeing, General Atomics, and Kratos. Boeing is well-known as an aircraft builder for commercial aviation and it still maintains the F-15 and F-18 fighters, as both programs were in place when Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas in 1997. General Atomics is known for its drones—Predator, Gray Eagle, and Reaper—as I mentioned previously.  I had to do some research to learn more about Kratos, which I learned is already a participant in the Air Force Loyal Wingman program with its XQ-58 Valkyrie. While starting as a secure information transmission company about 20 years ago, Kratos purchased, in 2020, Technical Directions, Inc.—a builder of smaller turbine engines that power cruise missiles like the Gray Wolf from Northrop Grumman. Kratos has two key components of the Skyborg program:

  • Air frame with propulsion
  • Secure communications needed to assist the Skyborg mission   

According to a December 2020 article in Defense News, “Military officials expect the first prototypes to be delivered no later than May 2021 for initial flight tests. The prototypes will then proceed into flight experiments beginning in July 2021 that will test each drones’ ability to team with manned aircraft, the service stated in a news release.” [2]

Should you think that the Skyborg program is only about the airframe, 10 other companies have also been given contracts for about three-fourths of this initial $400 million assignment: AeroVironment Inc., Autonodyne LLC, BAE System Controls Inc., Blue Force Technologies Inc., Fregata Systems Inc., Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, NextGen Aeronautics Inc., Northrop Grumman, Sierra Technical Services, and Wichita State University. Top of Form

“Over the past several months, the program has focused on developing the technologies necessary for the “Autonomous Core System,” the hardware and software that will enable the Skyborg drone to operate semi-independently from a human operator, who will be able to issue commands but will not have to physically fly the system. The system is being designed by Leidos, using input from the Air Force and other Skyborg vendors.” [3]

According to an article at BreakingDefense.com, “For many missions, we’re ready today. Skyborg, the attritable airplane, that’s going to be flown by ARTUµ or another sci-fi named equivalent,” Roper said. “In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see ARTUµ make it into a Skyborg attritable in the near future,” he said, referring to the AI “copilot” — pronounced R2 and named after the Star Wars droid R2D2 — flight tested in the U-2 spy plane on Tuesday.” [4]

So, some of your Luke Skywalker dreams, being assisted by R2-D2 in the co-pilot seat, are not so far-fetched. Or, with Skyborg, perhaps R2-D2 is flying solo.  For a look at how a Skyborg works, click here to view a great diagram published in Air Force Magazine

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skyborg:_Into_the_Vortex
  2. These 3 companies will build prototypes for the Air Force’s Skyborg drone
  3. Same as above.
  4. NGAD Likely To Carry AI Copilot; Next Step Certifying Them Flight Ready: Roper

Dennis Fritz was a 20-year direct employee of MacDermid Inc. and is retired after 12 years as a senior engineer at (SAIC) supporting the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana. He was elected to the IPC Hall of Fame in 2012.

 

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2021

Defense Speak Interpreted: Your Best Friend is a Skyborg?

01-15-2021

Suddenly the term “Skyborg” is popping up in Air Force publications, and if you are an Air Force pilot, your future best friend may be a Skyborg. To understand the concept behind the term Skyborg, we need a bit of weapons strategy for the Air Force.

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2020

Defense Speak Interpreted: What’s a VITA?

12-15-2020

Ever wonder how military electronics users could swap out circuit cards rapidly and keep their defense systems running? What about a “hot swap” of a circuit card that was questionable? How would defense depots keep enough unique circuit cards on hand to maintain the various systems in times of heavy use? The Department of Defense started to worry about those issues over 30 years ago and has helped private industry develop a highly sophisticated set of standards for circuit card input/output (I/O) to make quick change possible.

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Defense Speak Interpreted: Intel Is Now Making a ‘SHIP’

11-10-2020

Perhaps you recently saw that Intel was awarded a contract for a SHIP by the U.S. Department of Defense. However, this one will not float on the water since SHIP stands for state-of-the-art heterogeneous integration prototype. Denny Fritz explains.

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Defense Speak Interpreted: Rad-Hard Electronics

10-13-2020

Have you ever seen electronics described as “rad-hard,” or radiation-hardened, and wondered what that meant and how that was done? Did you like me just assume that “rad-hard” and “expensive” were synonymous? Did you think that this was a Defense Department term since they deal with nuclear weapons? Denny Fritz explores this and more.

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Defense Speak Interpreted: The Defense Innovation Unit

09-22-2020

Many of Denny Fritz's columns are about new defense technologies and innovations, but what about an organization with “innovation” in its name? Here, he describes the history and purpose of the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), as well as some of its programs.

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Defense Speak Interpreted: Unpacking the NDAA

08-25-2020

What is this NDAA stuff you keep hearing on the national news all the time, and why is it important to PCBs? Denny Fritz explains what is going on with the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes programs and lays out the priorities and policies for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).

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Defense Speak Interpreted: DMEA

07-14-2020

A June 17 article announced a supply chain award of $10.7 billion to eight defense companies for semiconductors. Dennis Fritz explains how the Defense Microelectronics Agency (DMEA) administers this contract and keeps the technology secure.

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Defense Speak Interpreted: C4ISR

06-16-2020

Only the U.S. Defense Department would lump together seven concepts—command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance—into a single acronym: C4ISR. Denny Fritz explains how C4ISR has been called the “nervous system” of the military.

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Defense Speak Interpreted: What’s an RCV, and What Do Electronics Have to Do With It?

05-12-2020

In "Defense Speak," RCV does not stand for ranked-choice voting, a remote control vehicle, a riot control vehicle, or a refuse collection vehicle, although the second one is close; it stands for a remote combat vehicle. Denny Fritz explores this concept and its defense applications.

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Defense Speak Interpreted: Why Is Defense Hyper Over Hypersonics?

04-14-2020

Perhaps you have noticed that the term “hypersonics” is now a buzz phrase in a big part of the Department of Defense research effort. What does hypersonic mean, and why is so much work needed in this weapons field? Dennis Fritz explains.

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Defense Speak Interpreted: Be Prepared for CMMC

03-24-2020

If you are a current or future Defense Department contractor or subcontractor, you need to be prepared for the next cybersecurity requirements coming online during 2020. This is the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification, or CMMC, in Defense speak. Dennis Fritz explains how there will be five levels of cybersecurity requirements for various amounts of Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) you handle, with increasing requirements from one (least) to five (most).

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2019

Defense Speak Interpreted: The Continuing Resolution

12-10-2019

The topic of the continuing resolution (CR) has been sneaking past other hot Washington topics, such as impeachment, candidate debates, and why the Redskins are so bad. Dennis Fritz provides an update concerning a CR and the 2020 fiscal year.

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Defense Speak Interpreted: Executive Agent

11-12-2019

After reading my previous column, you may have realized that electronics packaging technology development came from the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana. One of its core responsibilities is the assignment of “executive agent” for PCBs and electronic interconnects. But what is this “executive agent” thing, frequently shortened to EA? Dennis Fritz explains.

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Defense Speak Interpreted: PCB-related OTAs from NAVSEA Crane

10-29-2019

In my previous column, I described how Other Transaction Authority (OTA) projects were speeding up the development of new technology for the Defense Department. Much of this improvement has to do with the speed of contracting and the less restrictive selection and payment process involved. Specifically, I would like to call out projects under the National Security Technology Accelerator (NSTXL).

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Defense Speak Interpreted: Other Transaction Authority

09-19-2019

DIU grants contracts under a joint OTA and a parallel process called commercial solutions opening. Most of the five DIU focus areas depend on electronics: artificial intelligence (AI), autonomy, cyber, human systems, and space. At the end of 2018, DIU had funded 104 contracts with a total value of $354 million and brought in 87 non-traditional DoD vendors, including 43 contracting with DoD for the first time.

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Defense Speak Interpreted: DARPA ERI

01-29-2019

DARPA ERI stands for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Electronics Resurgence Initiative. This tongue-twisting acronym is the latest Department of Defense (DoD) effort to catch up and surpass world semiconductor technology for the secure IC chips needed by advanced defense electronics systems.

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2018

Defense Speak Interpreted: PERM—Pb-free Electronics Risk Management

12-18-2018

In this column, we explore PERM—the Pb-free Electronics Risk Management Consortium. No, the group members do not all have curly hair! The name was chosen around 2008 by a group of engineers from aerospace, defense, and harsh environment (ADHE) organizations.

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Defense Speak Interpreted: Defense Electronic Supply Chain Issues

10-18-2018

On October 5, 2018, the Department of Defense (DoD) highlighted issues with the release of the 146-page report “Assessing and Strengthening the Manufacturing and Defense Industrial Base and Supply Chain Resiliency of the United States” from President Donald J. Trump

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