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AI Program Pilots F-16 in Air Combat Scenarios: DARPA

An F-16 Fighting Falcon flown by Maj. Jacob Schonig from the 416th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, California, conducts a captive-carry flight test with a Gray Wolf cruise missile prototype over the Pacific Ocean, June 9. (Air Force photo by Ethan Wagner)
May 01, 2024

An artificial intelligence (AI) program has begun piloting a live aircraft in aerial combat scenarios, according to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a U.S. military research and development wing.

DARPA announced on Wednesday that its AI program, called the Air Combat Evolution (ACE), has transitioned from the flight simulator all the way up to flying real aerial combat maneuvers in a live aircraft. Beginning in 2023 and continuing in 2024, the ACE program piloted an F-16 fighter jet variant against an opposing human-piloted F-16 in within-visual-range combat scenarios, also known as dogfighting. The reported air combat tests would mark a new first in AI development and weaponization.

The simulated dogfights, using real aircraft, have been ongoing at the Air Force Test Pilot School at
Edwards Air Force Base, California.

The F-16 flown by the ACE program is a special test variant of the aircraft known as the X-62A, or
Variable In-flight Simulator Test Aircraft (VISTA).

The AI-piloted fighter jet has been a work in progress for several years. In August of 2020, DARPA
conducted the AlphaDogfight Trials to evaluate several AI algorithms for their combat proficiency in a
simulated F-16.

At the conclusion of the AlphaDogfight Trials, DARPA had the winning AI program go against a human
pilot in a flight simulator. That AI program beat the human pilot in every match-up, though officials
cautioned at the time that many variables in a flight simulator don’t translate to the real world.

“One of the primary problems machine learning and artificial intelligence is how to overcome something
called the sim-to-real problem,” USAF Test Pilot School research director Dr. Chris Cotting said in a new
DARPA video detailing the ACE program’s developments.

One particular concern was that an AI program could strain an aircraft’s flight control surfaces past their
physical limitations and damage an aircraft while conducting high-intensity maneuvers. DARPA said it
implemented “safety trips” within VISTA to keep the AI program from overstraining the airframe.

Last year, DARPA announced its ACE program had transitioned into live flights in the VISTA. It now
appears ACE has moved beyond basic flight training to tactical flying.

DARPA said the ACE program first began flying combat maneuvers in September of last year.

“We built up in safety using the maneuvers — first defensive, then offensive, then high aspect nose-to-
nose engagements where we got as close as 2,000 feet at 1,200 miles per hour,” USAF Test Pilot school
deputy commandant Lt. Col. Maryann Karlen said.

This article was originally published by FreeBase News and is reprinted with permission.