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US Air Force successfully flying AI-controlled F-16

February 20, 2023 (by Lieven Dewitte) - An autonomous F-16 completed 17 hours of flight testing in December, including advanced fighter maneuvers and beyond-visual-range engagements. The AI algorithm controlling the jet was developed by DARPA's Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program.

USAF X-62A (former NF-16D) #86-0048 from the 412th TW is pulling some G's in a right turn in the viscinity of Edwards AFB in early 2023. [USAF photo by Kyle Brasier]

The F-16 VISTA (Variable In-flight Simulation Test Aircraft) or X-62A, took off from Edwards Air Force Base in California, USA. This achievement marks the first time AI has been used to fly tactical aircraft.

In 2020, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) agent beat a real US Air Force instructor in a virtual dogfight conducted in flight simulation. And in December, DARPA managed to use this new technology to help fly a real F-16 jet, closing the simulation to real-world gap.

"We carried out several sudden attacks (take off and land) with many test points carried out on each surprise attack to test the algorithm under various initial conditions, against various simulated enemies, and by means of simulated weapons capabilities," said DARPA program manager for ACE, Lt. Col. Ryan "Hal" Hefron.

"We didn't experience any major problems, but found some differences compared to simulation-based results, which are expected to take place from virtual to live," he added.

The X-62, a modified F-16, was developed by Lockheed Martin Skunk Works and Calspan Corporation for the US Air Force Test School.

Starting its life as an F-16D Block 30 with two seats and first flying in July 1992, the X-62 spent most of his time at Edwards Air Force Test Pilot School at AFB.

In 2021 the fighter jet was redesigned from NF-16D N which showed it was a special test plane, to X-62A which began to be developed in 2019 with the launch of the ACE program.

Modifications made on aircraft over the years allowed it to simulate other fixed-wing aircraft flight characteristics, making it an effective training platform for human test pilots as in the past and most recently, AI pilots.

The X-62A acts as a flight test accelerator. The test team can fly a mission, land, and rapidly update or change the AI agent, then fly another test mission within hours, thanks to the modifications made as part of the VISTA program. During the flights, a human pilot is on board, able to take over should it be necessary.

DARPA envisions machine learning algorithms helping pilots fly and perform tactical maneuvers, with humans who will focus on combat orders, strategies, and firearms. This work involves developing new software and models.

During flight, a human pilot is on board, which can take over if necessary. DARPA also tests how human pilots interact with AI to check how well they trust machines to perform air battles automatically.

The aircraft used in the experiment is also equipped with sensors in the cockpit to track the pilot's physiological response while flying. DARPA believes the device can find out what scenario the AI pilot trusts or doesn't trust by monitoring their flight action and sensor data.

The agency will conduct similar experiments on test pilots flying the X-62 aircraft later this year.

Additional images:

USAF NF-16D block 30 #86-2048 is spotted in an entirely new colorscheme still being operated by Calspan in February of 2019. [USAF photo]

The Variable In-flight Simulator Aircraft (VISTA) flies in the skies over Edwards AFB, shortly after receiving its new paint scheme in early 2019. The aircraft was resdesignated from NF-16D to the X-62A on June 14th, 2021. [USAF photo by Christian Turner]