Boeing unveils futuristic AI drone fighter jet that will soon take to the skies

28 Feb 2019

The Boeing Airpower Teaming System drone. Image: Boeing

Fighter pilots could soon have a number of robot wingmen as Boeing unveils its drone fighter jet that can be easily customised by nations.

Drone aircraft are nothing new for air forces across the world, having already been deployed to perform reconnaissance, and even attacking roles, from high above. However, aerospace giant Boeing has taken things a step further with an uncrewed fighter jet that looks like something straight out of science fiction.

The Boeing Airpower Teaming System (BATS) will be designed and built by the company’s Australian division in what it said is its largest investment in drone aircraft outside of its native US.

As many as six of the aircraft can fly alongside traditional fighter jets with human pilots, and respond to their orders. In essence, the aircraft gives the pilot greater protection in the skies as well as greater firepower. Boeing said that the artificial intelligence (AI) on board the aircraft will allow it to fly independently, but has not said whether it will be able to attack targets with such independence.

The craft measures almost 12 metres in length and has a range of more than 3,700km, giving it options to perform many other roles including reconnaissance, intelligence and early warning of incoming threats. While there is no confirmation that the BATS can go supersonic speeds, the engine on board is an adaptation of a commercially available engine that can be quickly modified for use on runways or aircraft carriers.

“The BATS will provide a disruptive advantage for allied forces’ manned/unmanned missions,” said Kristin Robertson, vice-president and general manager of autonomous systems at Boeing.

“With its ability to reconfigure quickly and perform different types of missions in tandem with other aircraft, our newest addition to Boeing’s portfolio will truly be a force multiplier as it protects and projects air power.”

The first jet is expected to take to the air some time in 2020, with Australia to be the centre of its production. However, depending on sales, manufacturing could expand to other nations.

The news comes not long after Russia revealed details on its own futuristic space drone, which can fly at blistering speeds of up to 2,401 metres per second.

Updated, 9.31am, 8 March 2019: This article was updated to correct an error and clarify that the Russian space drone can reach speeds of 2,401 metres per second, not 2,401km per second.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic