Six F-16s Getting Autonomous Computer Brains For Combat Drone Trials

Dubbed Project VENOM, the findings gathered under the effort will feed into the service’s overarching Collaborative Combat Aircraft program.

byEmma Helfrich|
Eglin F-16 CCA autonomy


To lay the groundwork for the U.S. Air Force’s Combat Collaborative Aircraft (CCA) program, which will explore tactical human-machine teaming concepts, the service will be giving select F-16 Viper fighter jets the ability to fly themselves.

Dubbed Project Viper Experimentation and Next-Gen Operations Mode (VENOM), the initiative will outfit six F-16s from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida with autonomy agents that a human pilot will experiment with in flight. The hope is that the project will allow the Air Force to assess how it can best bridge autonomous and crewed formations while building trust in the autonomy. This is a major issue for the USAF's future manned-unmanned teaming hopes, which you can read all about here.

Four F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 96th Test Wing and the 53rd Wing stand ready for takeoff at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., July 2, 2020. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Tristan McIntire

New details about Project VENOM were discussed by Air Force officials on Monday during an online webinar focused on Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. The panel of generals from across the service explained to attendees how Project VENOM will help work autonomy into more routine testing as well as refine what is expected of the aircraft developed under the CCA program. The CCA effort seeks to produce at least 1,000 autonomous drones with high autonomy that can work as 'loyal wingmen' alongside and network with crewed aircraft, like the future NGAD platform

“Project VENOM right now is bringing in F-16s that will put autonomy on to help us get after the autonomy that we need to get that into kind of daily operation,” said Maj. Gen. Evan C. Dertien, commander, Air Force Test Center. “So, I see lots of challenges as far as building this NGAD family of systems, but I also see lots of opportunities to go deliver something new and innovative that will help out the warfighter.”

Lockheed Martin concept art showing an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter flying with various types of unmanned aircraft. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Fortunately, this is a concept that the Viper is no stranger to. While the Have Raider II program initially explored automating the F-16 in 2017, there also exists the X-62A. This aircraft is a highly modified NF-16D Variable-stability In-flight Simulator Test Aircraft (VISTA) jet that was redesignated in 2021 to more accurately reflect its role as a multi-purpose test platform for autonomy agents. 

In December of last year, the X-62A was flown using artificial intelligence-driven autonomy agents from the AFRL and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for an impressive 17 hours. The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has also been using the X-62A to conduct evaluations for its Skyborg program.

The lab achieves this by flying the autonomous core system (ACS) hardware and software suite that comprises Skyborg aboard the aircraft, testing how the ‘computer brain’ could ultimately equip various loyal wingman drones as is the intent of the program. Project VENOM will essentially continue to build off of X-62A's progress in this realm.

The X-62A VISTA flies over Palmdale, Calif. in August 2022. Credit: U.S. Air Force

“The goal of VENOM is to accelerate in a couple of areas,” Dertien said. “One, we're not trying to reinvent something, so we're taking all the work that we've done before with [the AFRL] with Skyborg, all the work for DARPA, and the other efforts in getting down on X-62 and trying to get that core autonomy engine that we will now put in an F-16.”

Even though both X-62A and VENOM aircraft are based on the same airframe and serve a broadly similar mission, both testbed jets bring different capabilities to each program. For instance, Dertien explained that the stock F-16s to be used for Project VENOM will offer a more robust sensor suite. 

“The VISTA aircraft is great for the control development and we kind of have the safety wrapper to develop autonomy, but what we don't have on that aircraft is a lot of sensors,” Dertien said. “So by getting [the autonomy engine] on the VENOM aircraft you now have an [active electronically scanned array] radar, you have electronic warning, you have all those things that can expand your autonomy algorithm to react to the inputs that it's getting to make decisions for yourself. It's kind of a next evolution into scaling up what autonomy can do, and that's what those VENOM aircraft will help us do.”

Maintainers from the 96th Test Wing prepare an F-16 Fighting Falcon for a flight test with its new APG-83 Active Electronically Scanned Array radar at Eglin Air Force Base. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Tristan McIntire

“And what the F-16 allows us to focus on, since it's a crewed fighter, we can work on getting the aircraft to and from the airspace to develop the autonomy there,” Dertien added. “And also in the airspace to work on the manned teaming and the uncrewed operation. So, I think it's a natural evolution from everything you've seen before.” 

Having multiple autonomous engine testbed fighters will also provide the Air Force with a feedback loop. In other words, lessons learned during Project VENOM evaluations could then be incorporated back into the X-62A's autonomy engine to aid in the development of Skyborg. This broader testing ecosystem could even extend to other autonomous flight experiments using Kratos’ stealthy XQ-58A Valkyrie drone, of which Eglin Air Force Base acquired two in October of last year

To support XQ-58A tests, the Eglin team will leverage a “data-storage and simulation environment intended to capture operator feedback and integrate their inputs into the autonomy software development process,” according to a past announcement. Using this environment paired with Valkyrie’s open architecture design, the Air Force envisions the drone digitally hosting a variety of AI-enabled software ‘brains’, which could potentially include Skyborg or other flight autonomy cores. 

“[We could] basically do kind of [development, security, and operations] there at Eglin to help develop that autonomy, but all of it is focused on ultimately delivering a CCA capability,” Dertien said. “And as you get into different platforms with different capabilities, the goal is to have one core autonomy engine. We're not investing in different acquisition programs for the autonomy portion.”

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Speeding up testing, however, is one of the most prominent offerings of Project VENOM. In a January interview with the Air Force’s Airman Magazine, the service’s Chief Scientist Victoria Coleman explained that Project VENOM will significantly accelerate the amount of time it typically takes to certify software for flight.

“If you were to wait for that, maybe you would do one drop a year. VENOM enables us to do tens of thousands of cold drops per week,” said Coleman. “So it's a really fundamental kind of capability that bridges and accelerates that transition from fully manned to this mixed mode human-machine teaming.”

Additionally, ‘tethering’ between the loyal wingman drones and the crewed platforms they would be partnered with via datalink is also an architecture and overall concept that Project VENOM could help better explore. It's now clear that while CCAs will be able to fly in concert with manned platforms and other CCAs in a 'tethered' concept, they will also be able to work in their own formations for certain missions where manned platforms are not present to 'tether' to.

A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor and F-35A Lightning II fly in formation with the XQ-58A Valkyrie over the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground testing range, Ariz., during a series of tests on Dec. 9, 2020. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Cason

“In many cases, we will tether in terms of range and speed and payloads and capabilities,” said Maj. Gen. R. Scott Jobe, Director of Plans, Programs, and Requirements, Headquarters Air Combat Command. “In other areas, we will untether in terms of geographic location and mission generation, to complicate both an enemy targeting scheme and what they have to keep track of and battle track. And then we will be able to congeal our forces to the time and place of our choosing."

"We're going to have the ability to perform maneuvers in close concert with a fighter type of aircraft or NGAD platform itself," Jobe added. "And then there are other cases where we will have swarms doing things on a platform-to-platform, CCA-to-CCA, or weapon-to-weapon collaboration level.”

Ensuring trust between humans and machines is also a critically important factor in realizing the CCA concept. Project VENOM could support this need simply by allowing pilots to fly with the flight autonomy cores that could equip the drones they may one day be fighting alongside. 

“It goes back foundationally to that trust in autonomy, right? This is where it starts now,” said Brig. Gen. Dale R. White, Air Force program executive officer for Fighters and Advanced Aircraft. “We're going to integrate into the F-16. We're going to start practicing with our algorithms … leveraging all of those things and the previous work that's been done understanding that foundationally we'll have that autonomous engine and then we’ll have to continue algorithm development.”

A rendering of the manned-unmanned teaming concept. Credit: Lockheed Martin

While the emergence of Project VENOM appears to be a step in the right direction in terms of progress on developing the CCA concept, the consensus still seems to be that there’s a lot of work left to do. The Air Force has requested nearly $50 million for Project VENOM in Fiscal Year 2024, and as evaluations are carried out, the findings gathered will provide a better idea of just how close the service is to establishing its ambitious NGAD ‘system of systems.’

“There's a lot of data to collect through VENOM, and I think that is an important key, is how do you collect data while it's in flight and then leverage that to develop the next generation of autonomy based on what the pilots and the machines are doing together,” said Maj. Gen. Heather L. Pringle, commander, Air Force Research Laboratory. “And so again, to me, it's all about the data and developing that autonomy core system.”

Project VENOM is just one piece of the larger NGAD modernization effort that is aimed at making transformational changes to how the Air Force operates, and autonomy is clearly expected to be a critical part of the evolution.

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