Pentagon seeks low-cost AI drones to bolster Air Force: Here are the companies competing for the opportunity


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The Pentagon will look to develop new artificial intelligence-guided planes, offering two contracts that several private companies have been competing to obtain. 

The Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) project is part of a $6 billion program that will add at least 1,000 new drones to the U.S. Air Force. These drones would deploy alongside human-piloted jets and provide cover for them, acting as escorts with full weapons capabilities that could also act as scouts or communications hubs, The Wall Street Journal reported

Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics and Anduril Industries have all taken up the challenge. General Atomics supplied the Reaper and Predator drones the U.S. has deployed in numerous campaigns in the Middle East, and Anduril is a newcomer to the field, founded in 2017 by inventor Palmer Luckey, an entrepreneur who founded Oculus VR. 

Fox News Digital reached out to some of the companies pursuing the CCA contracts, but they either did not respond or declined to comment. 


Boeing is the only company that has shown off its entrant, known as the Ghost Bat. It’s between 20 and 30 feet in length and is able to fly just below the speed of sound and travel more than 2,000 nautical miles. 

The plane is designed to work with existing military aircraft and “complement and extend airborne missions,” according to an overview on Boeing’s website. Other features of the plane include “tactical early warning” and other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, but the highlight, according to the manufacturer, is the “low-cost design.” 

Boeing Ghost Bat Drone

A Boeing MQ-28 Ghost Bat fighter-like drone on display at the Australian International Airshow in Avalon, Australia, Feb. 28, 2023.  (Reuters/Jamie Freed)

Cost-cutting is one element of AI that appeals to the Pentagon in pursuing this project. 

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks in August 2023 said deployed AI-enabled autonomous vehicles would provide “small, smart, cheap and many” expendable units to the U.S. military, helping overhaul the “too-slow shift of U.S. military innovation.” 

Anduril, for its part, has showcased at least one AI-powered drone, known as the Roadrunner, a jet-powered combat drone that uses AI navigation. Anduril CSO Christian Brose hailed it as a “very low-cost, very high quantity, increasingly sophisticated and advanced aerial threat” in an interview with Wired. 


Anduril has not indicated if the Roadrunner will serve as its entry for the CCA pitch, but it does showcase the potential of what the company can produce — a reusable, vertical take-off and landing module with twin turbojet engines and “modular payload configurations” and loitering capabilities. The company also promotes a “high-explosive interceptor variant” on its website. 

The variant, called Roadrunner-M, “can rapidly launch, identify, intercept and destroy a wide variety of aerial threats or be safely recovered and relaunched at near-zero cost.” 

Anduril Founder Palmer Luckey

Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus and Anduril Industries, speaks during The Wall Street Journal’s WSJ Tech Live conference in Laguna Beach, Calif., Oct. 16, 2023.  (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

General Atomics even a year ago actively promoted its CCA “ecosystem” with the showcase of its Avenger Unmanned Aircraft System paired with “digital twin” aircraft to “autonomously conduct live, virtual and constructive multi-object collaborative combat missions.” 

The company revealed it had held tests as early as late 2022, potentially showing the edge the company could have, aside from its already healthy relationship with the Pentagon. 


“The flights demonstrate the company’s commitment to maturing its CCA ecosystem for Autonomous Collaborative Platform (ACP) UAS using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML),” General Atomics wrote of the tests. “This provides a new and innovative tool for next-generation military platforms to make decisions under dynamic and uncertain real-world conditions.”

“The concepts demonstrated by these flights set the standard for operationally relevant mission systems capabilities on CCA platforms,” General Atomics’ Senior Director of Advanced Programs Michael Atwood, said. 

General Atomics Reaper

A model of a General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial drone vehicle is displayed during the Farnborough International Airshow 2022 July 19, 2022, in Farnborough, England. (John Keeble/Getty Images)

“The combination of airborne high-performance computing, sensor fusion, human-machine teaming and AI pilots making decisions at the speed of relevance shows how quickly GA-ASI’s capabilities are maturing as we move to operationalize autonomy for CCAs,” Atwood added. 

Lockheed Martin has exhibited the ability to integrate AI into its planes, taking its VISTA X-62A training plane and updating it with AI operating systems that piloted the craft for 17 hours in early 2023. 


The U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School uses the VISTA X-62A at its Edwards Air Force Base in California, where the faculty has already praised the increased potential to rapidly evolve air tactics and combat capabilities.

“VISTA will allow us to parallelize the development and test of cutting-edge artificial intelligence techniques with new uncrewed vehicle designs,” M. Christopher Cotting, U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School director of research, said in a press release on Lockheed Martin’s website. 


“This approach, combined with focused testing on new vehicle systems as they are produced, will rapidly mature autonomy for uncrewed platforms and allow us to deliver tactically relevant capability to our warfighter.” 

Northrop Grumman has not indicated or displayed what potential AI CCA unit it could submit.  

The Pentagon did not respond to a Fox News Digital request for comment by time of publication. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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