Thousands of autonomous drones could come to the battlefield alongside fighter pilots

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Warfare with AI is efficient – and cheap. The Air Force is upgrading with a multi-billion dollar budget for autonomous drones.

The Air Force plans to invest about $5.8 billion in autonomous drones over the next five years. A drone is expected to cost about $3 million, a fraction of the $80 million for an F-35 fighter jet, the New York Times reports. Military officials refer to drones as “affordable mass” because they are so inexpensive.

The Air Force plans to build about 1,000 to 2,000 drones in the first phase. The hardware and software will come from a variety of partners, rather than a single source as with fighter jets.

The XQ-58A Valkyrie, which was recently successfully tested in aerial combat, is just one example of how military drones can be useful. The Air Force plans to deploy several drones that are also optimized for surveillance and resupply. Others, like the Valkyrie, will be wingman drones that can support fighter pilots on missions or fly in a swarm to attack.

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Cheaper drones can be used for self-destruct missions. More expensive models, costing up to $25 million, can fly multiple missions. They still cost less than a third of a manned fighter.

Flight of the Valkyrie

On July 25, after two years of preparation, the AI-powered XQ-58A Valkyrie drone successfully completed its test flight in Florida. The test demonstrated that an AI-enabled drone can autonomously solve a “tactically relevant ‘challenge problem” in flight.

Brig. Gen. Scott Cain, commander of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), called AI “critical” to future warfare. “AI, Autonomous Operations, and Human-Machine Teaming continue to evolve at an unprecedented pace.”

Kratos Defense and Security Solutions, maker of the XQ-58A Valkyrie drone, also plans to compete for the U.S. Air Force’s new drone budget, if approved by Congress, according to the New York Times.

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