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US Air Force’s Skyborg ‘Loyal Wingman’ AI Pilots Kratos Mako Drone for First Time

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Artificial intelligence is seen as a key component of the next generation of aircraft, both manned and unmanned, and networking them to operate as a cohesive unit over the battlefield is a major focus of projects funded by the Pentagon, as well as other nation’s militaries.

The US Air Force’s Skyborg autonomous AI piloting system took the helm of an aircraft for the first time last week when it flew an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) for the first time in a test at Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base.

The Air Force announced on Thursday that on April 29, the Skyborg team conducted a 130-minute test flight of a Kratos UTAP-22 Mako UCAV flown by the Skyborg autonomy core system (ACS), which they dubbed “Milestone 1.”

“We’re extremely excited for the successful flight of an early version of the ’brain‘ of the Skyborg system. It is the first step in a marathon of progressive growth for Skyborg technology,” Brig. Gen. Dale White, program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft, said in a press release. “These initial flights kick off the experimentation campaign that will continue to mature the ACS and build trust in the system.”

The Skyborg autonomy core system launches aboard a Kratos UTAP-22 tactical unmanned vehicle at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla, April 29, 2021.

According to the release, the Skyborg ACS “demonstrated basic aviation capabilities and responded to navigational commands, while reacting to geo-fences, adhering to aircraft flight envelopes, and demonstrating coordinated maneuvering.” It was monitored by both ground and airborne observers.

Skyborg will be the basis of the “loyal wingman” system, which will allow a human pilot in an aircraft to direct one or several Skyborg-linked drones during combat missions. The system will be “attritable,” meaning it can be expended if necessary, such as taking gunfire or a missile intended for the human-flown aircraft like a sort of aerial bodyguard. However, it will also be able to scout ahead, fly diversionary maneuvers, and perform its own strikes according to the pilot’s directions.

Kratos’ drone is just one of several in the running for the Air Force program. Based on the BQM-167 subscale aerial target, the Mako was converted into a UCAV in 2015, but remains launched from a rail using a rocket-assisted takeoff. However, a previous prototype used for early Skyborg testing by the Air Force Research Laboratory, the XQ-58 Valkyrie, flies from runways like a typical aircraft; General Atomics GA-ASI Avenger and Boeing’s Airpower Teaming System (ATS) do the same.

The stealthy Valkyrie isn’t part of the competition with Boeing and General Atomics, but it could still one day receive the Skyborg system. The Air Force is continuing to test it for other uses as well. Last month, a Valkyrie flying out of Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona used its internal weapons bay to deploy an ATIUS-600, a small drone typically launched from a tube that can be used for scouting or delivering very small payloads. In December, a Valkyrie was successfully used as a “translator” for the immense computers on an F-22 Raptor and an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

In addition to testing AI for drones, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is also working on an Air Combat Evolution (ACE) AI that will be able to take the helm of a human’s fighter jet in a dogfight, freeing up the pilot to worry about other concerns. The AI has proven capable of beating human pilots in a simulated dogfight, but the greater challenge is convincing human pilots to trust the computer to fly for them in a life-and-death fight.



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Delta COVID Variant Reportedly Draws Biden’s Attention, Resources Away From Other Priorities

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Despite high overall rates of vaccinations in the US, more and more Americans are getting infected with the new, rapidly spreading ‘delta’ variant of the coronavirus, once again testing the limits of hospitals and reportedly sparking talks about new mask-up orders from authorities.

The rapidly increasing number of new COVID-19 cases in the US caused by the more infectious delta strain of the virus is frustrating the Biden administration, as the problem draws attention and resources away from other priorities that the White House would like to concentrate on, the Washington Post reported, citing several anonymous sources. Among the problems that the administration reportedly had to de-prioritise are Biden’s infrastructure initiatives, voting rights, an overhaul of policing, gun control and immigration.

The White House reportedly hoped that the pandemic would be gradually ebbing by this time, allowing it to focus more on other presidential plans. Instead, the Biden administration is growing “anxious” about the growing number of daily COVID-19 cases, the newspaper sources said. The White House press secretary indirectly confirmed that Biden is currently preoccupied with the pandemic the most.

“Getting the pandemic under control [and] protecting Americans from the spread of the virus has been [and] continues to be his number-one priority. It will continue to be his priority moving forward. There’s no question,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on 22 July.

The administration had reportedly expected new outbreaks in the country, but not as many as they’re seeing. Current analytical models predict anything between a few thousand new cases and 200,000 new infected daily, the Washington Post reported. Washington also fears that daily deaths might reach over 700 per day, up from the current average of 250. However, the White House doesn’t expect the pandemic numbers to return to their 2020 peak levels.

At the same time, the Biden administration is trying to find scapegoats to blame for the current shortcomings in fighting the coronavirus pandemic in the country. Namely, Biden  last week accused the social media platform of failing to combat the spread of disinformation on COVID-19 and thus “killing people”. The statement raised many eyebrows since many platforms mark COVID-related posts and insert links to reliable sources of information regarding the disease and the vaccination efforts aimed at fighting it. The White House also hinted that the Republican-controlled states became the main sources of new COVID cases, while often underperforming in terms of vaccination rates.



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Sierra Leone abolishes death penalty | Global development

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Sierra Leone has become the latest African state to abolish the death penalty after MPs voted unanimously to abandon the punishment.

On Friday the west African state became the 23rd country on the continent to end capital punishment, which is largely a legacy of colonial legal codes. In April, Malawi ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, while Chad abolished it in 2020. In 2019, the African human rights court ruled that mandatory imposition of the death penalty by Tanzania was “patently unfair”.

Of those countries that retain the death penalty on their statute books, 17 are abolitionist in practice, according to Amnesty International.

A de facto moratorium on the use of the death penalty has existed in Sierra Leone since 1998, after the country controversially executed 24 soldiers for their alleged involvement in a coup attempt the year before.

Under Sierra Leone’s 1991 constitution, the death penalty could be prescribed for murder, aggravated robbery, mutiny and treason.

Last year, Sierra Leone handed down 39 death sentences, compared with 21 in 2019, according to Amnesty, and 94 people were on death row in the country at the end of last year.

Rhiannon Davis, director of the women’s rights group AdvocAid, said: “It’s a huge step forward for this fundamental human right in Sierra Leone.

“This government, and previous governments, haven’t chosen to [put convicts to death since 1998], but the next government might have taken a different view,” she said.

“They [prisoners] spend their life on death row, which in effect is a form of torture as you have been given a death sentence that will not be carried out because of the moratorium, but you constantly have this threat over you as there’s nothing in law to stop that sentence being carried out.”

Davis said the abolition would be particularly beneficial to women and girls accused of murdering an abuser.

“Previously, the death penalty was mandatory in Sierra Leone, meaning a judge could not take into account any mitigating circumstances, such as gender-based violence,” she said.

Umaru Napoleon Koroma, deputy minister of justice, who has been involved in the abolition efforts, said sentencing people on death row to “life imprisonment with the possibility of them reforming is the way to go”.

Across sub-Saharan Africa last year Amnesty researchers recorded a 36% drop in executions compared with 2019 – from 25 to 16. Executions were carried out in Botswana, Somalia and South Sudan.

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[Ticker] EU to share 200m Covid vaccine doses by end of 2021

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The European Commission announced it is on track to share some 200 million doses of vaccines against Covid-19 before the end of the year. It says the vaccines will go to low and middle-income countries. “We will be sharing more than 200 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines with low and middle-income countries by the end of this year,” said European commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

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