Russia is on the path of developing a new drone that would be able to function as an autonomous wingman for human pilots. Several new unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designs, including the ‘Grom’ (‘Thunder’) and the Helios, created by unmanned aerial systems developer Kronstadt Group were presented at the Army 2020 arms expo in Moscow.
Nikolai Dolzhnekov, the general designer at Kronstadt Group told Sputnik that Grom is designed to provide support for the Sukhoi Su-35 and Sukhoi Su-57 fighter jets. It weighs about 7 tonnes, and has a 500 kg payload, with its main mission being to help keep pilots and their aircraft safe by providing support in the destruction of enemy air defenses, and in carrying out other combat operations.
“It’s unclear how much the developers at drone-maker Kronstadt Group have made on the most critical aspect of this type of unmanned aerial vehicle—the artificial intelligence that allows the vehicle to make decisions on its own,” wrote David Axe a US military correspondent and an author.
“Grom is a concept, so its final mission—and even shape—may change based on testing and evaluation of the current airframe,” said Samuel Bendett, an analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for a New American Security.
Another drone presented was the Helios which can perform radar surveillance and assist in guidance.
“The Helios is five-tonne radar surveillance and guidance drone. When used as a radar, it will most likely be fitted with part of the radar station used in the Beriev A-100 ‘Premier’ [early warning and control aircraft],” Dolzhnekov explained. The chief designer acknowledged that no contract has been signed by the Russian Defence ministry for Helios but Russian naval aviation has expressed great interest in the prospective UAV.
However, Russia isn’t the only working on UAVs that will function as autonomous teammates for manned aircraft. The US is also known to be working on it. American Valkyrie costs only $2 million which makes it more “attritable” meaning a design trait that trades reliability and maintenance for low-cost.
In other words, it’s acceptable to lose a large number of such drones in combat. “The idea of a robot wingman is that it can keep pace with manned planes, but be tasked out for parts of the mission that you wouldn’t send a human teammate to do,” explained Peter W. Singer, an analyst with the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. to Forbes.
The US Air Force plans to team up its first wingman drones with F-35 stealth fighter and the new F-15EX version of the classic Eagle fighter.
According to Axe, it is difficult to refine an A.I. that can duplicate, or even improve upon, the decision-making of a trained human pilot. In the US, a lot of work on drone A.I. is performed by the US Air Force and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency initiatives.
Meanwhile, it is unclear how far the Russians have come in developing their own code. “They may have the software already, but they see no need to reveal that in public,” Bendett said. “After all, that software is the key part of that drone. So I think in the coming years, more details would be available.”