The US Air Force successfully tested an AI-controlled fighter jet in dogfight against human pilots

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What just happened? In what has been hailed as a milestone moment for artificial intelligence’s use in the military, the US Air Force has announced that it successfully tested a modified, AI-controlled fighter jet in a dogfight against human pilots last year.

The US Air Force Test Pilot School and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) first started testing a Lockheed Martin X-62A VISTA (Variable In-flight Simulation Test Aircraft) fitted with AI software back in December 2022, part of the Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program. Able to mimic the performance characteristics of other aircraft, the X-62A was flown for by the AI for over 17 hours.

DARPA revealed on Thursday that in September 2023, the X-62A carried out the first successful AI versus human within-visual-range engagements, also known as a dogfight.

The AI dogfights paired the X-62A VISTA against manned F-16 aircraft in the skies above Edwards Air Force Base in Kern County, California. After initial flight safety was built up using defensive maneuvers, the aircraft switched to offensive high-aspect nose-to-nose engagements where they approached within 2,000 feet of each other at 1,200 miles per hour. It isn’t revealed which side won the simulated battle.

The X-62A has a backup pilot in the rear cockpit and a technician in the front who can disengage the AI and take over the controls should anything go wrong. DARPA says the pilots did not have to activate the safety switch at any point during the dogfights.

There have been 21 test flights conducted to date, with more continuing throughout 2024.

In addition to its autonomous flight capabilities, the X-62A VISTA, a modified F-16, also features a high-resolution camera, a compact size, lightweight construction, and is versatile enough to be used for a wide range of applications, including scientific research, surveillance, recon, environmental monitoring, and emergency response.

Could Air Force pilots be yet another profession that is eventually threatened by AI? The 2020 AlphaDogfight Trials, a three-day competition designed to demonstrate advanced algorithms capable of dogfighting (using VR simulations), saw an experienced F-16 Air Force pilot lose 5-0 to the AI agent. DARPA said the machine performed aggressive and precise maneuvers that the human pilot could not match.

DARPA says that the X-62A VISTA will continue to serve a variety of customers for research while providing key academic lessons for the next generation of test leaders.

AI-controlled weapons in the military has been a controversial area for years. Elon Musk was one of many experts who called for a ban on the technology in 2017. In response, the army said that the final decision to engage a target always rests with humans, not machines.

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Rob Thubron