Boeing turns F-16 fighter jets into unmanned drones

f-16

Boeing and the US Air Force have tested F-16 fighter jets (which have been retired from the Air Force and used for research, such as this) without any pilots in the cockpit. The aircraft were basically turned into drones that were piloted remotely from the ground by US Air Force pilots.

The flights proved to be successful, with the jets flying at an altitude of 40,000ft (12.2km) and speed of Mach 1.47 (1,119mph/1,800km/h). The pilots were also able to remote perform barrel rolls, evasive maneuvers and a landing that Paul Cejas, the project’s chief engineer, describes as “probably one of the best landings I’ve ever seen.”

As for what the fighter jet turned drones will be used for, Boeing says that it could eventually be used to help train pilots, since the unmanned planes could be used as a flying target that pilots can fire on. Boeing currently has six of the modified F-16s, which they have renamed QF-16s.

Unexpectedly, the development has drawn some criticism. Prof. Noel Sharkey of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is worried that they might eventually be used for automated killing:

“I’m very concerned these could be used to target people on the ground. I’m particularly worried about the high speed at which they can travel because they might not be able to distinguish their targets very clearly. There is every reason to believe that these so-called ‘targets’ could become a test bed for drone warfare, moving us closer and closer to automated killing.”

The US military is currently planning to use the modified jets in live fire tests.

Is anyone really surprised with this news? It was only a matter of time. I’m just wondering why it took so long.

[via BBC, image via UNC – CFC – USFK] 

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4 comments

  1. Ian

    Gents,

    This article makes it sound like this is something new for the USAF, they have been doing with with older retired fighters for 40 years or so. They did this with F-100, F-101, F-102, F-106, F-4 and now the F-16 as the older airframes are shot down or no longer perform to the necessary spec.

    As to what General Dynamics, thinks, it sold F-16 production to Lockheed about 15 years ago.

    The Europeans do the same with their retired aircraft.

    Nothing new just that more now know of this because of the issue with drones.

  2. Darcy

    As stated, the tech’s been around for ages. The drones (probably) have been as well. This is an example of the right type of government secret, the type that would be a danger if it gets out too early, Like the stealth aircraft were. The stealth bomber, fighter and spy plane all existed decades before their existence became public knowledge.

  3. etim

    I agree–I’m surprised this wasn’t done years ago. The tech’s been around for ages to have a remote human pilot them.
    We have hundreds (thousands?) of old aircraft sitting around that could be retrofitted; millions could be saved on each jet we didn’t have to install life support systems on.
    Why waste millions on smart bombs when you can just pack your payload on an old jet that could be crashed right on target.

  4. JonE

    Not surprised by drones of this type, only surprised that the military didn’t contract for an entirely new drone of this type, but I figure that will happen.

    I’m very curious to know what General Dynamics thinks about the military giving this contract to Boeing?

    Waiting to see what they come up with as a Wild Weasel drone since they’ve had so much trouble retrofitting other aircraft, already in inventory, for this mission.