An artificial intelligence (AI) pilot completely defeated a U.S. Air Force’s top F-16 fighter pilots in a five-round match of simulated aerial combat.
The AI beat the human pilot in all five rounds of the event, put on by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on Thursday. The event, known as the AlphaDogfight Trials, was broadcast via Zoom meeting and shared on YouTube.
Created in 2019, the AlphaDoghfight Trials are 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.
Ahead of the trials, Col. Dan Javorsek, the program manager for DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office, said, “Regardless of whether the human or machine wins the final dogfight, the AlphaDogfight Trials is all about increasing trust in AI. 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.”
The AI program, developed by defense contractor Heron Systems, was selected after competing with various other AI programs for the chance to take on a human pilot in the final round. Aurora Flight Sciences, EpiSys Science, Georgia Tech Research Institute, Lockheed Martin, Perspecta Labs, PhysicsAI and SoarTech also submitted AI programs to compete in the simulated air combat event. The eight companies were given a year to develop their AI programs to face off in the air combat simulation, which ran from Aug. 18-20.
A human Air Force F-16 fighter pilot, known by the call sign “Banger,” was selected to go up against the AI program. Fellow pilot, Justin “Glock” Mock commentated for the human pilot as he went into the competition against the AI program.
Mock initially predicted “Banger” would be able to adapt through the various rounds of simulated combat against the Heron Systems AI program, codenamed “Falco.” Mock noted the AI had shown aggressive movement and would rely on its gun mechanisms in instances that human pilots don’t train for and warned the human pilot to avoid going nose to nose in those instances where the AI would often take shots humans wouldn’t.
The presenter for the live stream, who went by his own call sign, “Disco,” said Heron Systems’ AI program “really dominated the competition” from the beginning AI on AI trials through to the end with the final round against the human pilot.
Following the AI’s 5-0 “Flawless Victory” over the human pilot, “Disco” reminded viewers that the event was only a simulation and that the AI system was advantaged by having completely controlled conditions in place. “Let’s remember, this is a simulation, this is a game, the machine’s had perfect state information and in the real world, state information, or having perfect information is something that you never have” and “there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Asked to give the final assessment on the matchup between the AI and his fellow human pilot, Mock said, “There’s a long way to go, this was a far cry from going out in an F-16 and flying actual [Basic Fighting Manuevers], but I think we made a really large step, a really giant leap if you will in the direction that we’re going.”