Aerospace company Boeing is helping the US Air Force reuse old F-16 fighter jets by converting them into drones that simulate enemy aircraft, as well as enabling new tactics, weapons and technologies to be tested in mid-air.
The US Air Force decided that it wanted to turn its old fighter jets into unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in 2010, when it awarded Boeing $72m ($59m) to take six F-16 aircraft and turn them into QF-16s, which are full-scare unmanned aerial targets that can be used to simulate enemy actors trying to attack the US.
"It's a full scale aerial target, you can imagine the adversaries that our Air Force flies against around the rest of the world, this aircraft is designed to be a threat representative for those adversaries," Tim Bartlett, director of off-Boeing platforms for Boeing Defense, told Avionics Magazine.
"It is comparative to what our pilots will fly against, the [Air Force] uses them for two main missions. The first is to qualify and test their munitions and armaments. The second mission is being around threat representatives gives our pilots a better sense of what they're flying against in an adversary and from a training perspective as well."
Six years later and the US Air Force has declared that the new QF-16s are operationally capable, but how exactly do you turn a manned military aircraft into a drone?
"We add a flight control computer to enhance data processing within, which is a vital component to enable the unmanned capabilities," said Bartlett.
"What we are doing is inserting hardware that is ultimately designed to replace the pilots. A new autopilot helps with that as well, and there's also some telemetry technology added that helps tell you where the aircraft is within the world, and the speed as well."
The process takes five months and requires multiple components of the plane to be removed and 3,000 new wires to be installed, as well as a Gulf Range Drone Control System (GRDCS) with a data link range of 120 nautical miles to enable mission control to stay in command of the UAV at all times.
Boeing is contracted to convert another further 97 F-16 fighter jets into drones, and eventually the US Air Force wants all 210 aircraft to become UAVs. It is currently considering whether the QF-16s can be sold to foreign partners who want to test weapons and simulate enemy attacks as well.