AI Algorithms Pilot X-62A in First Aerial Dogfight

Air Force Test Pilot School
Edwards Air Force Base, CA

The U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School (TPS) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have reported another major breakthrough for the artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms or “agents” that have been flying their modified F-16 test aircraft known as VISTA X-62A in a series of flight tests since 2022.

In an April 17 update, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) reported on the use of AI algorithms to complete their first ever demonstration of an AI-controlled fighter jet against a human-controlled fighter jet for a simulated in-air dogfight. The AI-controlled dogfighting breakthrough occurred at Edwards Air Force Base, California in September 2023, however, AFRL and DARPA have not released details about it until now.

The X-62A was developed by Lockheed Martin Skunk Works in collaboration with Calspan Corporation for the USAF TPS. Built on open systems architecture, X-62A is equipped with software that allows it to mimic the performance characteristics of other aircraft.

The Air Force effectively summarizes “dogfighting” as aerial combat occurring between fighter jets at close range. The demonstration is considered a major breakthrough for the use of AI algorithms to control a fighter jet not only in a dog fighting scenario, but it proves that the algorithms can complete nearly every type of operation or maneuver that a human pilot can.

During the tests, the X-62A is always flown with safety pilots onboard that have the ability to independently disengage the aircraft’s flight management computer from the control of the AI agents. During the dogfights, the safety pilots did not have to deactivate the AI agents’ control of the aircraft. The tests featured the AI agents in “nose-to-nose engagements where the dogfighting aircraft got as close as 2,000 feet at 1,200 miles per hour,” according to AFRL.

“It’s very easy to look at the X-62A ACE [Air Combat Evolution] program and see it as under autonomous control, it can dogfight, but that misses the point,” said Bill Gray, the Test Pilot School’s Chief Test Pilot. “Dogfighting was the problem to solve so we could start testing autonomous artificial intelligence systems in the air. Every lesson we’re learning applies to every task you could give to an autonomous system.”

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall also completed a flight in the X-62A in May to “personally witness AI in a simulated combat environment,” according to AFRL.

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