F16; source: Alamy


The US Air Force may eventually use drones that can travel side-by-side with cutting-edge fighter jets like the F-35. The idea behind these drones is that they would act as robotic wingmates, perhaps two being assigned to a single-piloted F-35. They might do activities like dogfighting and serve as a force multiplier for human-piloted aircraft. Collaborative Combat Aircraft is the official name for these unmanned aircraft, and the Air Force is considering purchasing a large number of them. It has stated that it would want to have 1,000 of them.

Project VENOM

Yet, the military must be able to rely on autonomy software that can fly a combat drone as skillfully as, if not more skillfully than, a human would a fighter jet. An effort named VENOM will transform about six F-16s so they can fly autonomously, albeit with a human in the cockpit acting as a supervisor, as a first step toward getting there.

Naturally, VENOM is an acronym. The F-16 Fighting Falcon, a highly nimble fighter plane, is known as the “Viper,” hence the name of this acronym, which stands for Viper Experimentation and Next-Gen Operations Model.

The goal of the VENOM program, according to Lt. Col. Robert Waller, commander of the 40th Flight Test Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, is to test autonomy on an F-16 that is “combat capable.”

Waller continues, “We’re taking a combat F-16 and turning it into an autonomy flying testbed. “We want to implement what we refer to as combat autonomy, which is the air vehicle with associated weapons systems—radar, advanced electronic warfare capabilities, and the ability to integrate munitions—so you loop all of that together into one flying testbed.”

The program expands on prior initiatives. A noteworthy related project featured the VISTA, or X-62A, special aircraft. Last year, AI algorithms from the Air Force Research Laboratory and DARPA took over the flight controls of that one-of-a-kind F-16D, a flying testbed with room for two pilots.

According to Waller, the VENOM initiative will test “new capabilities that you cannot test on VISTA.” To examine how those autonomy agents now function with actual systems rather than simulated systems, “we want to actually convert that [work from VISTA] to platforms with real combat capability.”

Air Force Maj. Gen. Evan Dertien stated that VENOM is “the next evolution into scaling up what autonomy can do,” building on VISTA, at a recent panel discussion at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies that touched on this topic. Popular Science sibling website The War Zone reported on this topic last month.

Project involves six aircraft

Waller tells PopSci that the project will involve utilizing “around six” aircraft to test the autonomy capabilities; however, neither the precise number nor the specific model F-16 to receive the autonomy characteristics have been decided. Waller refers to an F-16C, a single-seat F-16, when he says, “If we want the most cutting-edge radar or [electronic warfare] capabilities, then those will need to be connected to an F-16C.”

According to Waller, the human pilot operating an F-16 that is testing these autonomous systems has a dual responsibility. The first is to function as a “safety observer to make sure that the aircraft always return to their home base and that the autonomy agent doesn’t do anything unauthorized,” he adds. “Evaluating system performance” is to be the second component. To determine whether the autonomy agent is performing satisfactorily, in other words.

Waller emphasizes that the human will be able to veto any actions taken by the plane. As flying testbeds, “these platforms can and will permit an autonomy agent fly the aircraft and execute combat-related tasks,” the author claims. “That pilot is in complete control of the air vehicle and has the power to turn off everything, including the autonomy agent’s ability to fly or carry out any actions.”

According to Defense News, the Air Force is asking for roughly $50 million to complete this project in the fiscal year 2024.

The majority, if not all, of these capabilities will be simulated, with a human being able to switch them off at any time, according to Waller. “These airplanes will typically fly without combat loads—so no missiles, no bullets,” he adds.

The ultimate goal is not to create autonomous F-16s that can fly in battle without a human pilot, but rather to continue developing autonomy technology in order to someday operate a drone that can mimic a fighter jet and support other aircraft that are flown by people.