July 24 (UPI) -- Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics and Kratos Defense and Security Solutions have been awarded contracts to build Skyborg drone prototypes for the U.S. Air Force, the branch said Friday.
The contracts, announced by the Defense Department on Thursday, have a shared ceiling of $400 million but allocate no funding to initiate development of the unmanned, artificial intelligence-enabled aircraft.
The Air Force's Skyborg program seeks to develop the AI-equipped unmanned aerial vehicles that are inexpensive enough that the loss of one in combat is sustainable, but useful to the point that they can fly with and assist other piloted aircraft.
The planned artificial intelligence capability of the drones will also allow them to learn information leading to a decrease in pilots' workloads.
"Because autonomous systems can support missions that are too strenuous or dangerous for manned crews, Skyborg can increase capability significantly and be a force multiplier for the Air Force," Air Force Brig. Gen. Dale White said Friday in a statement.
The companies will compete against each other for future orders, the Pentagon said in the announcement.
"We have the opportunity to transform our warfighting capabilities and change the way we fight and the way we employ airpower," said White, Air Force Material Command program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft.
The Skyborg contracts -- for prototyping, experimentation and autonomy development -- will deliver prototypes of the first Skyborg air platform with modular hardware and software payloads, the Defense Department said.
The contracts are indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity, which provides for an indefinite quantity of supplied vehicles during their six-year life.
An earlier example of the prototype vehicle is the XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator.
In October, Kratos Defense and Security Solutions announced that its aircraft successfully completed a 90-minute flight in which a perfect launch was executed and all baseline tests were accomplished.