The robot combat devices are being designed as a fusion between artificial intelligence and jet-powered drones. Skyborg drones will have the ability to fly alongside fighter jets in risky missions.
The machines will be more cost-effective than aircraft flown by members of the force, which will allow the Air Force to increase the number of aircraft at a lower cost.
The company or companies that develop different types of Skyborg drones will be paid $400 million, according to Defense News.
The drones will be “attritable”, meaning they will be conceived to execute multiple flights.
The devices are expected to become fully functional in 2023.
Originally the prototype was designed as a flying artificial intelligence.
It was meant to operate either within a piloted fighter, giving a human pilot assistance; or as an AI flying a self-governing device on its own.
Skyborg AI is now set to fly a high performance, fighter-like drone, according to the current blueprint.
Air Force acquisition executive Will Roper has likened Skyborg to R2-D2, the fictional Star Wars droid that provides Luke Skywalker with data while piloting an X-Wing.
He added: “We can take risk with some systems to keep others safer.
“We can separate the sensor and the shooter. Right now they’re collocated on a single platform with a person in it.
“In the future, we can separate them out, put sensors ahead of shooters, put our manned systems behind the unmanned.”
The drones can carry out dangerous missions such as hunting down or jamming enemy air defence structures, executing recognition missions behind enemy lines, or hitting targets in heavily protected airspace.
Skyborgs could also transport air-to-air missiles for fast aircraft like the F-22 Raptor or F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which are limited in the number of missiles they can transport in stealth mode.
Air Force Magazine reports the force intends for its Skyborg drones to “autonomously avoid other aircraft, terrain, obstacles, and hazardous weather, and take off and land on its own”.
Four firms are working on the Skyborg program.
Kratos Defense is already teaming up with the Air Force in the making of XQ-58A Valkyrie drone, while Boeing Australia’s Loyal Wingman drone is another participant.
Defense News also reports General Atomics and Lockheed Martin are also likely parties, but the type of drone they would proved is unknown.