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DARPA’s AI Algorithms Can Now Control an Actual F-16 in Flight

Feb. 17, 2023.
2 min. read Interactions

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Lewis Farrell

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DARPA, the research arm of the US Department of Defense, recently announced that their AI algorithms can now control a full-scale fighter jet. This accomplishment was demonstrated in early December 2022, over the course of several days, at the Air Force Test Pilot School in California. The AI software was loaded into the X-62A or VISTA, a modified F-16 test aircraft. DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program, which focuses on human-machine collaboration in dogfighting, began in 2019. The AlphaDogfight Trials, a competition between different companies to see who could create the most advanced algorithm for an AI-powered aircraft, took place in 2020.

The ACE program is one of more than 600 Defense Department projects that incorporate artificial intelligence into the nation’s defense programs. In 2018, the government committed to spending up to $2 billion on AI investments over the next five years, with $2.58 billion spent on AI research and development alone in 2022. DARPA hopes to use AI to allow the “human pilot to focus on larger battle management tasks in the cockpit” while the AI controls the jet and provides live-flight data. The ACE program will enable American defense to develop “much smaller autonomous aircraft” while also providing valuable live-flight data. In 2024, four AI-powered L-39s will compete in a live dogfight over Lake Ontario. The Air Force Test Pilot School is investigating how well pilots trust the AI agent and how to calibrate trust between humans and AI.

This technological breakthrough is significant because it demonstrates how artificial intelligence systems can control a fighter jet in flight. It has implications for defense systems, particularly in terms of human-machine collaboration in dogfighting. Pilots can focus on larger battle management tasks by allowing the AI to control the jet. This technology has the potential to become commonplace in defense programs with continued research and development, leading to smaller autonomous aircraft and invaluable live-flight data.

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