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AI program helps fly US military plane for first time

A U-2 Dragon Lady takes off from Beale Air Force Base, California. ((U.S. Air Force photo/ Staff. Sgt. Ramon A. Adelan)
December 16, 2020

An Artificial Intelligence (AI) program took charge of a U.S. military aircraft’s sensor equipment on Tuesday, marking the first time an AI program has served as a crew-member aboard a U.S. military aircraft.

In a Wednesday press release, the Air Force said a U-2 Dragon Lady spy-plane assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, was the first U.S. military aircraft to fly with an artificial intelligence program known as ARTUµ as a working aircrew member. During the flight, ARTUµ was responsible for controlling the aircraft’s sensor equipment and tactical navigation, while the pilot flew the plane and coordinated with the AI on the plane’s sensor operations.

The test pairing of the human pilot and AI sensor and navigation crewmember saw the AI crew member tasked with finding enemy launchers while the pilot was on the lookout for threatening aircraft, both sharing the U-2’s radar.

The test scenario also pitted the human-AI team against a different “dynamic computer algorithm” to prove the new AI’s abilities.

Dr. William Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, said, “ARTUµ’s groundbreaking flight culminates our three-year journey to becoming a digital force. Putting AI safely in command of a U.S. military system for the first time ushers in a new age of human-machine teaming and algorithmic competition. Failing to realize AI’s full potential will mean ceding decision advantage to our adversaries.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr said “We know that in order to fight and win in a future conflict with a peer adversary, we must have a decisive digital advantage. AI will play a critical role in achieving that edge, so I’m incredibly proud of what the team accomplished. We must accelerate change and that only happens when our Airmen push the limits of what we thought was possible.”

The ARTUµ program was designed to be easily transferred to other systems and the Air Force plans to further refine the technology for future uses.

In a Wednesday tweet, Roper said, “Like any pilot, Artuμ (even the real R2-D2) has strengths and weaknesses. Understanding them to prep both humans and AI for a new era of algorithmic warfare is our next imperative step. We either become sci-fi or become history.”

The AI program was developed through insights it learned over the course of a half-million computer-simulated training iterations.

“Blending expertise of a pilot with capabilities of machine learning, this historic flight directly answers the National Defense Strategy’s call to invest in autonomous systems,” said Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett. “Innovations in artificial intelligence will transform both the air and space domains.”

The U.S. military has continuously worked to advance AI technology, including for use in combat. In August the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) pitted an Air Force fighter pilot against an AI program known as “Falco,” developed by defense contractor Heron Systems, in a simulated dogfight scenario. In five out of five head-to-head matchups, the AI program defeated the experienced Air Force fighter pilot, demonstrating a flawless victory for the AI program. While the AI program performed well in the simulated environment, Air Force pilot Justin “Glock” Mock reminded viewers at the time that “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.