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A human fighter pilot will take on AI in an upcoming aerial combat contest

F-16C fighter jets from the Homestead Air Reserve Base. (TNS)
August 14, 2020

An artificial intelligence algorithm and a human F-16 fighter pilot will come face to face in an aerial combat simulation which will run from August 18-20.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced the competition on August 7, C4ISRNET reported. The simulation comes as the final competition in DARPA’s AlphaDogfight Trials and will be presented virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We weren’t able to host the finals at AFWERX in Las Vegas as we’d originally planned with fighter pilots from the Air Force Weapons School at nearby Nellis Air Force Base,” Col. Dan Javorsek, the program manager for DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office, said in a statement to C4ISRNET. “We are still excited to see how the AI algorithms perform against each other as well as a Weapons School-trained human and hope that fighter pilots from across the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, as well as military leaders and members of the AI tech community will register and watch online.”

Javorsek said, “It’s been amazing to see how far the teams have advanced AI for autonomous dogfighting in less than a year.”

The AlphaDogfight trials were formed to “demonstrate advanced AI systems’ ability in air warfare.” The final competition will involve eight teams which were selected last year. The teams are Aurora Flight Sciences, EpiSys Science, Georgia Tech Research Institute, Heron Systems, Lockheed Martin, Perspecta Labs, PhysicsAI and SoarTech.

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The teams will fly their algorithms against five Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab AI systems on the first day of the competition. On the second day, teams will compete against each other in a “round-robin tournament.” On the third and final day of the competition, the top four teams will compete in a single-elimination tournament for the championship. The AI winner will then take on a human pilot.

“Regardless of whether the human or machine wins the final dogfight, the AlphaDogfight Trials is all about increasing trust in AI,” Javorsek said. “If the champion AI earns the respect of an F-16 pilot, we’ll have come one step closer to achieving effective human-machine teaming in air combat, which is the goal of the [Air Combat Evolution] program.”

Created in 2019, the competition is part of DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program. The ACE program’s goal is to automate air-to-air combat and build trust in AI systems. Ultimately, the program aims to form more human-machine teaming.

“In a future air domain contested by adversaries, a single human pilot can increase lethality by effectively orchestrating multiple autonomous unmanned platforms from within a manned aircraft,” DARPA’s website states.  “This shifts the human role from single platform operator to mission commander.”