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Unleashing the VENOM: F-16 Fighter Jets Transformed into Cutting-Edge Experimental Drones

The US Air Force is seeking 1,000 guided unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to complement sixth- and fifth-generation fighters. In preparation for this endeavor, the Air Force plans to conduct an experiment involving the conversion of F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters into drones.

Here’s What We Know: For the fiscal year (FY) 2024, the US Air Force has requested $50 million for a program called Viper Experimenting and Next-gen Operations Model, also known as Project VENOM. This initiative aims to convert six fourth-generation aircraft into drones by incorporating specialized software.

The purpose of the software is to enable autonomous control of the aircraft without the direct involvement of a pilot. Project VENOM will serve as a testing ground for assessing the effectiveness and potential advantages of such systems in aerial operations.

Initially, pilots will remain in the cockpit of the aircraft and will have the ability to take control if necessary. The US Air Force draws a parallel with Tesla’s self-driving cars, where the autopilot mode still requires the driver to keep their hands on the steering wheel during the journey, despite millions of miles travelled autonomously.

The US Air Force plans to develop this program over several years, allocating annual investments of $17-19 million from FY2025 to FY2028. This indicates a total projected cost of $120 million over a span of five years.

Project VENOM serves as a transitional phase towards the development of cooperative unmanned combat drones. These drones are part of the larger NGAD sixth-generation fighter jet and Collaborative Combat Aircraft program. The Air Force envisions 1,000 drones for deployment with sixth-generation fighters (200 units) and F-35 Lightning II (300 units), allowing each pilot to control two drones.

It is worth noting that the Pentagon is already working on a project involving the autonomous flight of F-16 aircraft. Recently, an artificially intelligent system successfully piloted a modified F-16 for a duration of 17 hours.

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