SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AFRL) – AFWERX Autonomy Prime partner Xwing Inc. made history by flying the first autonomous logistics mission as part of the Air Force exercise AGILE FLAG 24-1 at McClellan Airfield in Sacramento, California, Jan. 26, 2024. The flight was one of several autonomous demonstrations conducted during the exercise by Autonomy Prime partners Reliable Robotics and Xwing between Jan. 26 and Feb.1, 2024.
“Agile Flag demonstrations were a success and exercise leadership was supportive in leveraging our autonomous cargo logistics and offered multiple opportunities to support cargo movements between exercise locations which generated interest from the operational end-users and headquarters personnel,” said Kate Brown, AFWERX Autonomy Prime deputy branch chief. “We’re starting to see a shift in the conversation of how the Department of the Air Force can supplement traditional logistics concepts with autonomous cargo aircraft.”
Autonomy Prime is a new technology program in Prime, a division within AFWERX, and partners with the private sector to accelerate testing and affordably deliver game-changing technology to the warfighter. AFWERX has awarded both Reliable Robotics and Xwing Small Business Innovation Research Phase Two and Phase Three contracts to conduct autonomous flight trials and demonstrate the capability in an operationally relevant environment. Both companies have autonomous flight technology that allows their aircraft to taxi, take off, fly to a destination and land.
Autonomy Prime saw AGILE FLAG as an opportunity to invite both companies and show Air Force leaders how autonomous aviation can contribute to the Agile Combat Employment, or ACE, concept, which is to disperse aircraft and equipment between major hub bases and smaller airfields to improve resilience and survivability. During the exercise, the 4th Fighter Wing from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, tested their ability to generate combat airpower while continuing to move, maneuver and sustain the wing and subordinate force elements.
“The point of AFWERX is to get emerging and operationally relevant technologies into the hands of warfighters,” said Ian Clowes, AFWERX Prime stakeholder engagement lead. “So I coordinated with the 4th Fighter Wing for nearly a year, and the initial pitch was for us to show up and make sure we were not interfering with the exercise. But plans changed, and we got to demonstrate the capability in an operational environment.”
Xwing arrived at McClellan Airfield, AGILE FLAG Main Operating Base, with its ground control station on Jan. 26. Dozens of Airmen stopped by to watch autonomous flight demonstrations and put questions to Xwing and Autonomy Prime leadership.
Demonstrations turned into an operationally relevant mission when Airmen needed an aircraft to transport equipment from March Air Reserve Base, California, to McClellan Airfield. Airmen loaded the equipment onto Xwing’s Cessna 208B and the aircraft successfully flew its first autonomous cargo flight during an Air Force exercise. That momentous flight was one of numerous demonstrations flown by Xwing during AGILE FLAG and over the course of the exercise, they flew more than 2,800 autonomous flight miles to military bases and civilian airports throughout California.
“This technology has a lot of real-world possibilities and there are assets that the Air Force has that would benefit from having autonomous capabilities,” said Master Sgt. Cody Jurgensmeyer, 4th Fighter Wing armament division chief.
Reliable Robotics arrived at AGILE FLAG Jan. 30 and demonstrated its autonomous capabilities to a group of Airmen. The team landed at McClellan Airfield, unloaded its dual-use control station and, in less than 20 minutes, was ready to remotely operate an autonomous aircraft at Hollister Municipal Airport, California, more than 120 miles away. Airmen viewed the demonstration from a TV screen on the ground, and asked questions of Reliable Robotics and Autonomy Prime leadership.
“This technology is a game-changer because the Air Force could fly in contested areas without the loss of life and it's much less expensive than using traditional cargo aircraft,” said Master Sgt. Brian Crea, 3rd Wing director of innovation.
At the conclusion of the exercise, Autonomy Prime will collect the data to validate the concept of using an autonomous logistics aircraft in an ACE construct. The results will be analyzed and then briefed to Air Force leadership.
“This demonstration was the first step in showcasing how autonomy and light cargo logistics can be leveraged in an ACE construct,” Brown said. “Moving forward, Autonomy Prime is continuing to investigate integration into future exercises to further refine concept of operations and use-case. In parallel, Autonomy Prime is working with requirements owners and vendors to inform future requirements.”
The Air Force Research Laboratory is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 12,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit afresearchlab.com.
As the innovation arm of the DAF and a directorate within the Air Force Research Laboratory, AFWERX brings cutting-edge American ingenuity from small businesses and start-ups to address the most pressing challenges of the DAF. AFWERX employs approximately 340 military, civilian and contractor personnel at six hubs and sites executing an annual $1.4 billion budget. Since 2019, AFWERX has executed 4,697 new contracts worth more than $2.6 billion to strengthen the U.S. defense industrial base and drive faster technology transition to operational capability. For more information, visit: afwerx.com.