USAF Plans for Autonomous Flight Tests with F-16 Fighters

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USAF Plans for Autonomous Flight Tests with F-16 Fighters
Under the VENOM project, autonomous flight capabilities will be evaluated with F-16 fighter jets modified with autonomy kits.

Project Viper Experimentation and Next-generation Operations Model (VENOM) will consist of six F-16 fighter jets with autonomy software tested in an experimentation zone.  F-16s are to be controlled by the pilot during take-off, followed by the aircraft being switched to autonomous flight mode.

The U.S. previously converted an F-16 fighter jet for unmanned flight under the QF-16 programme. However, QF-16 didn’t have the same goals for autonomy level as the VENOM programme.

A budget of $50 million is proposed for the VENOM project, with an additional $69 million budget for the launch of an experimental operations team.

The U.S. is considering multiple unmanned combat aircraft projects, such as the MQ-28 Ghost Bat and XQ-58 Valkyrie, for its Combat Collaborative Aircraft effort, envisioning large procurement of unmanned combat aircraft.

MQ-28, developed by Boeing Australia, made its maiden flight in 2021. MQ-28 Ghost Bat’s flight performance is meant to match that of 4th and 5th generation fighter jets to serve as a “Loyal Wingman” alongside the fighters. A modular nosecone housing is being developed for payloads such as radars, IRST systems and electronic warfare equipment. 

XQ-58 Valkyrie is a somewhat different platform launched by Rocket-Assisted Take-off (RATO) and recovered by a parachute, diverging from other designs. XQ-58’s internal weapons bay allows for the carriage of smaller-sized munitions such as GBU-39 SDB and ALTIUS-600 loitering munition. The main focus of the XQ-58 Valkyrie is ease of deployment and low cost.

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