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AI defeats top Viper driver in DARPA’s dogfight contest

August 21, 2020 (by Lieven Dewitte) - A computer program easily beat a veteran U.S. F-16 pilot in five rounds of simulated F-16 flight combat during a competition intended to spur the development of artificial intelligence that helps pilots during aerial dogfights.

Screenshot from the online AlphaDogfight trials competition broadcasted on 20 Aug 2020.

A human pilot with more than 2,000 hours in the F-16 lost five straight dogfights against an artificial intelligence algorithm, in a competition organized by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program pitted AI developed by eight companies – including Lockheed Martin – against each other, before the winner went up against a human pilot in the "AlphaDogfight trials" competition.

The AI program won all five rounds in under two minutes, showing the technology's promise. Identified only by his callsign 'Banger,' the pilot who is presumably with the 113 Fighter Wing, 121st Fighter Squadron at Joint Base Andrews outside of D.C., recently graduated from the F-16 Weapons Instructor course and already logged thousands of hours flying the Viper.

The contest had very simple rules, using only the jet’s guns rather than missiles. While the AI was bound by the physical limitations of the jet, it was not obligated to follow the Air Force’s rules and procedures for basic fighter maneuvers and angles of attack, enabling it to sweep 'Banger' from the sky every time. It was also able to react faster than the human pilot.

In the simulated dogfight, the F-16s were armed with essentially a laser beam that simulated the use of machine guns.

Although technology scored a resounding victory, the controlled conditions of the F-16 simulation doesn't mean that the program could have beaten a human in real combat. Col. Daniel “Animal” Javorsek, who oversees the AI piloting program at DARPA, said the results come with "plenty of caveats and disclaimers."

The trials were all about increasing trust in AI,' Javorsek said. '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 ACE program,' he said.

The Air Force hopes that a fighter drone piloted by AI would be able to react faster to opponents, as well as conduct harder, faster maneuvers that would be impossible with a human on board, as they would overwhelm the body.

“We envision a future in which AI handles the split-second maneuvering during within-visual-range dogfights, keeping pilots safer and more effective as they orchestrate large numbers of unmanned systems into a web of overwhelming combat effects,” Col. Javorsek said in a 2019 press release.

DARPA is the agency that played a key role in developing the Internet and has focused on encouraging AI in recent years.

The agency helped stimulate the development of self-driving cars with a series of obstacle course challenges starting in 2004. More recently, it helped develop an autonomous ship that sailed from San Diego to Hawaii without human intervention.

In addition to Heron and Lockheed, Aurora Flight Sciences, EpiSys Science, Georgia Tech Research Institute, Perspecta Labs, PhysicsAI, and SoarTech also took part in the competition.

Watch the AlphaDogfight Trials Final Event, which was streamed live on thursday.

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