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AI flies Air Force plane with no human on board

An F-15E Strike Eagle accompanies an XQ-58A Valkyrie flown by artificial intelligence. (U.S. Air Force)
August 04, 2023

The U.S. Air Force successfully completed its first unmanned flight with the use of artificial intelligence, marking a significant breakthrough in the Air Force’s advancement of military technology.

The three hour sortie by an XQ-58A Valkyrie conducted using algorithms programmed by artificial intelligence took place on July 25 at the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, according to the Air Force Research Lab.

The Air Force Research Laboratory worked in conjunction with Kratos to develop the unmanned aircraft.

The Air Force Research Laboratory noted that the artificial intelligence algorithms used for the flight were developed by the lab and incorporated millions of hours worth of simulations.

“The mission proved out a multi-layer safety framework on an [artificial intelligence/machine learning]-flown uncrewed aircraft and demonstrated an AI/ML agent solving a tactically relevant ‘challenge problem’ during airborne operations,” USAF Col. Tucker Hamilton, commander of the 96th Operations Group, said.

Hamilton explained that the unmanned flight will enable the Air Force to “develop AI/ML agents that will execute modern air-to-air and air-to-surface skills” that can quickly be used in the Collaborative Combat Aircraft program.

According to the Air Force Research Laboratory, the XQ-58A Valkyrie was designed as a reusable unmanned plane that serves as a cheaper alternative than other manned and unmanned aircraft.

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In a statement following the recent flight, the Air Force claimed the successful sortie was the result of a four-year partnership with Skyborg Vanguard and the Autonomous Aircraft Experimentation programs.

Stars and Stripes reported that the XQ-58A Valkyrie is rocket-launched from a rail system and is controlled either from an airborne fighter or a station on the ground.

Additionally, a computer system on the aircraft is used to determine a flight path and the appropriate throttle settings in compliance with Air Force commands.

“AI will be a critical element to future warfighting and the speed at which we’re going to have to understand the operational picture and make decisions,” Brig. Gen. Scott Cain, the research lab commander said. “AI, autonomous operations, and human-machine teaming continue to evolve at an unprecedented pace, and we need the coordinated efforts of our government, academia and industry partners to keep pace.”