WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has added nine vendors to the list of companies that will compete to build the service’s autonomous Skyborg drone wingman.

On Sept. 28, the service awarded each firm an indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract worth up to $400 million. The nine companies were AeroVironment Inc., Autodyne LLC, BAE System Controls Inc., Blue Force Technologies Inc., Fregata Systems Inc., Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, NextGen Aeronautics Inc., Sierra Technical Services, and Wichita State University.

Those organizations join Northrop Grumman, Boeing, General Atomics and Kratos, which won the first round of contracts in July.

No money has been allotted to vendors so far. Instead, the 13 companies on contract will compete against each other for future delivery orders.

“This second phase of awards establishes a diverse and competitive vendor pool by adding several nontraditional and traditional contractors we saw as important additions to the effort,” said Brig. Gen. Dale White, the program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft, whose team manages the Skyborg program with the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Skyborg is one of the lab’s top three science and technology efforts. The project is meant to produce a family of uncrewed aerial systems that can move into contested spaces and conduct aerial missions that might be too dangerous for human pilots to perform.

Under the Skyborg program, the Air Force hopes to build a low-cost, attritable drone that can be reused but — if destroyed in combat — is cheap enough to be written off without incurring a large material loss. Key to the program is the development of artificial intelligence that will allow the aircraft to operate autonomously and potentially learn from prior training missions.

Currently, the Skyborg program is focused on developing the technologies necessary for the “Autonomous Core System,” the service said in a news release. The Air Force will choose companies to begin designing air vehicle prototypes later this year.

The service has not disclosed how it will compete development opportunities among its list of potential vendors, or which companies could be in line to build the Skyborg air vehicle, mission systems or autonomy module.

Future plans include operational experiments during which the air vehicles will be integrated with autonomy modules and tested by airmen, the Air Force stated in the release.

The service has said Skyborg could be operational as early as 2023.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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