USAF plans more tests of drone-fighter plane collaborations

Despite disappointment in December, new tests of the “Golden Horde” weapons system of swarming drones will begin in February, the U.S. Air Force said.

An element of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Vanguard project, the system involves unmanned aerial vehicles, working as a group to communicate, choose targets and then coordinate strikes against an array of targets, through data links and without human involvement.

The Air Force envisions it as a group of expendable drones interlinked for collaborative behavior by radio link. It did not meet its objectives in a Dec. 15 test.

“It was another great learning opportunity,” AFRL Director Brig. Gen. Heather Pringle said this week at a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event.

“On the positive side, nine of 13 test objectives were met, things like the network radios were working, as well as the inter-swarm communications, but not everything went according to plan. We’re looking forward to two more flights this month,” Pringle said.

Additional demonstration tests are scheduled for February, involving use of small diameter bombs dropped from a fighter plane.

The Air Force selected the technology in 2019 and first demonstrated it in 2020.

Another AFRL project under the Vanguard umbrella, called Skyborg, similarly had problems in a December test, but provided useful information and could reach operational capability by 2023, Pringle said.

Skyborg employs artificial intelligence allowing information-providing unmanned aerial vehicles to accompany a manned fighter aircraft in combat, guiding the fighter planes in firing munitions.

“We weren’t able to establish it in flight with the onboard communication gateway, but we still achieved the objective, because we had a backup on the ground,” Pringle said of the Skyborg test. “So the connections were made; we still got the job done.”

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