Pentagon seeks low-cost AI drones to bolster the Air Force: Here are the companies competing for the opportunity

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The Pentagon will seek to develop new aircraft guided by artificial intelligence, offering two contracts that several private companies have competed for.

The Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) project is part of a $6 billion program that will add at least 1,000 new drones to the U.S. Air Force. These drones would deploy alongside human-piloted jets and provide cover for them, acting as escorts with full weapons capabilities that could also serve as scouts or communications centers, Wall Street reported Newspaper.

Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics and Anduril Industries have all taken up the challenge. General Atomics has supplied the Reaper and Predator drones that the United States has deployed in numerous campaigns in the Middle East, and Anduril is a newcomer to the field, founded in 2017 by inventor Palmer Luckey, an entrepreneur who founded Oculus VR.

Fox News Digital reached out to some of the companies pursuing CCA contracts, but they either did not respond or declined to comment.


Boeing is the only company to have introduced its competitor, known as the Ghost Bat. It measures between 20 and 30 feet long and is capable of flying just below the speed of sound and traveling more than 2,000 nautical miles.

The aircraft is designed to work with existing military aircraft and “complement and expand airborne missions,” according to an overview posted on Boeing's website. Other features of the aircraft include “tactical early warning” and other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, but the highlight, according to the manufacturer, is the “low-cost design.”

Boeing Ghost Bat Drone

A Boeing MQ-28 Ghost Bat fighter-type drone on display at the Australian International Airshow in Avalon, Australia, February 28, 2023. (Reuters/Jamie Freed)

Cost reduction is one of the elements of AI that appeals to the Pentagon in pursuing this project.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said in August 2023 that deploying AI-enabled autonomous vehicles would provide the US military with “small, smart, cheap and numerous” consumable units, helping to overhaul “the too slow evolution of American military innovation”.

Anduril, for its part, showed off at least one AI-powered drone, known as the Roadrunner, a jet-powered combat drone that uses AI navigation. Christian Brose, CSO of Anduril, hailed it as a “very low cost, very high quantity, increasingly sophisticated and advanced aerial threat” in an interview with Wired.


Anduril did not indicate whether the Roadrunner would serve as an entry point for the CCA launch, but it shows the potential of what the company can produce: a reusable vertical takeoff and landing module with two turbojets and “configurations modular payloads. and loitering abilities. The company is also promoting a “high-explosive interceptor variant” on its website.

The variant, called Roadrunner-M, “can quickly launch, identify, intercept and destroy a wide variety of aerial threats or be safely recovered and relaunched at near-zero cost.”

Palmer Luckey, founder of Anduril

Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus and Anduril Industries, speaks during the Wall Street Journal's WSJ Tech Live conference in Laguna Beach, California, October 16, 2023. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

Even a year ago, General Atomics actively promoted its CCA “ecosystem” with the presentation of its Avenger unmanned aircraft system associated with a “digital twin” aircraft to “autonomously carry out combat missions live, virtual and constructive multi-object collaborative projects”.

The company revealed that it had conducted tests as early as late 2022, potentially showing the advantage it could have, beyond its already healthy relationship with the Pentagon.


“These flights demonstrate the company's commitment to evolving its CCA ecosystem for Autonomous Collaborative Platform (ACP) UAS using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML),” General Atomics wrote about testing. “This provides a new and innovative tool for next-generation military platforms to make decisions under dynamic and uncertain real-world conditions.”

“The concepts demonstrated by these flights set the standard for mission system operational capabilities on CCA platforms,” said Michael Atwood, senior director of advanced programs at General Atomics.

General Atom Reaper

A model of the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial drone is on display during the 2022 Farnborough International Airshow, July 19, 2022, in Farnborough, England. (John Keeble/Getty Images)

“The combination of airborne high-performance computing, sensor fusion, human-machine teaming, and AI pilots making decisions at the speed of relevance shows how quickly GA-ASI’s capabilities are maturing as that we are moving towards the operationalization of CCA autonomy,” Atwood added.

Lockheed Martin demonstrated its ability to integrate AI into its aircraft, taking its VISTA X-62A trainer aircraft and updating it with AI operating systems that flew the craft for 17 hours early 2023.


The U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School operates the VISTA fight.

“VISTA will allow us to parallelize the development and testing of cutting-edge artificial intelligence techniques with new models of unmanned vehicles,” said Dr. Christopher Cotting, Research Director of the University's Test Pilot School. US Air Force, in a press release published on the Lockheed Martin website.


“This approach, combined with targeted testing of new vehicle systems as they are produced, will rapidly develop the autonomy of unmanned platforms and enable us to deliver tactically relevant capabilities to our warfighters. ”

Northrop Grumman has not indicated or displayed which potential AI CCA unit it might submit.

The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment from Fox News Digital at the time of publication.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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