The U.S. Emerging Technology Combined Test Force successfully completed flight tests on its newest autonomous aircraft testbed last month at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
The flight tests are in support of the Skyborg project with the goal to ultimately provide an autonomous software testing package.
“We are doing function check flights of the BVM (Bob Violett Models) ‘Renegade’ commercial, off-the-shelf, turbine-powered jet aircraft,” said Capt. Steve DiMaio, ET-CTF, 412th Test Wing. “It is in support of the Skyborg test program testing autonomy. Currently, today we are just doing a build-up approach of expanding the envelope of the airplane, making sure all of our tunes on our autopilot are correct.”
The Skyborg program is a developing software tool spearheaded by the Air Force Research Laboratory that will allow engineers and researchers to develop autonomous capabilities. AFRL plans to have Skyborg as an Early Operational Capability as early as 2023. The ET-CTF is producing software for testing autonomous aircraft and to make them safer.
Variations of artificial intelligence such as the Automatic Ground and Air Collision Avoidance Systems have been proven to have save lives and aircraft.
The Renegade aircraft falls under the Group 3 classification of unmanned aerial systems as prescribed by the Department of Defense. This classification is for UAS jets weighing more than 55 lbs. but less than 1,320 lbs. The jet can also fly at speeds of 200 knots, or around 230 mph.
“It’s very similar to the previous aircraft that we used, which was called a Shockwave,” DiMaio said. “This is slightly bigger; carry a little more gas (with) a bigger engine, not necessarily faster, but it is a great test bed because we have a larger payload capacity. We also have longer flight time and added capability just by that larger capacity inside.”
The ET-CTF team, along with their mission partners, produce software for their test beds that push flight safety envelopes to help develop test safety procedures and requirements in the development of the Skyborg program. Engineers are able to install software updates to the aircraft and then study its flight characteristics and behavior to ensure the computer codes produce no harm to the jet and does as it is intended.
The ET-CTF team completed at total of five test flight missions with the Renegade in March, however because of recent minimum manning postures due to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, the team has had to rework their upcoming test missions, said John Wilson, ET-CTF Deputy Director.
“The COVID HPCON (Health Protection Condition) limitations are impacting the next flight of the Renegade,” Wilson said. “There are plans to continue to fly the Renegade in the future, but the flights are on hold due to COVID and our current minimum manning posture.”
Wilson explained that while the ET-CTF’s mission partners may have travel limitations, ET-CTF is working with them for future flight tests, and in the meantime, the unit is working on furthering their own skill sets.
“There may be opportunity for continued training as ET CTF works to maintain pilot currency,” he said.
The recently completed flight testing in March was a success for the ET-CTF and the Skyborg program according to Lt. Col. David Aparicio, ET-CTF Director. It proved the viability of a surrogate small UAS aircraft at a higher speed regime, greater endurance, and a larger payload capacity than previous test campaigns.
“As the 412th Test Wing continues to seek ways to support the 2018 National Defense Strategy, affordable high-speed surrogate aircraft like the Renegade are invaluable to lowering the risk to future autonomy research and development programs,” he said.
Despite the current travel restrictions and COVID-19 health protection conditions, ET-CTF and its mission partners are continuing to make advances in autonomy flight test. ET-CTF continues to develop test plans and procedures remotely with its team of operators and engineers. Additionally, ET-CTF developed some innovative procedures to protect its team while providing an ever-ready test capability to support the Warfighter, Aparicio added.