DARPA Tests First Ever Human Pilot Vs AI Dogfight

A recent test over California saw an AI-controlled F-16, the X-62A VISTA, take on a human pilot in aerial combat for the first time. This event, part of the Air Combat Evolution (ACE) programme by DARPA, explored the capabilities of artificial intelligence in critical military strategies. Lt. Col.

Ryan Hefron, the programme’s manager, stated, “The purpose of the test was really to establish a pathway to demonstrate that we can safely test these AI agents in a safety-critical air combat environment.” Though the specifics of the results were not disclosed for security reasons, the AI was described as having “performed well” in various combat scenarios.


What Innovations Were Tested?

During the test, which was part of a series including 21 flights from December 2022 to September 2023, the AI demonstrated remarkable flexibility. According to Col. James Valpiani, the commandant at the Air Force’s test pilot school, changes to the AI software were made in real-time, even while the aircraft was in the air.

He explained, “We were able to upload the software changes to the aircraft while it was holding short, ready to take off, and even airborne, we’re able to transition between multiple versions of the same AI agent airborne between combat sets.” This speaks to the different changes in how software updates are applied in aviation and military operations, moving towards more immediate and responsive systems.



What Are The Impacts For Military Aviation?

The successful integration of AI into combat scenarios is a monumental and development for military tactics and technology. The tests at Edwards Air Force Base are leading to the development of autonomous drones and collaborative combat aircraft, which will likely play essential roles in the future of military engagements.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall showed his support and trust in the programme by announcing his plans to personally experience the AI algorithms by flying in the autonomously-piloted plane later this year.

This ongoing effort to integrate AI technologies safely into combat scenarios is shaping the future of how military operations will be conducted. With further demonstrations planned through 2024, the ACE programme is set to continue promoting the use of AI in complex, high-risk environments, which could in turn be transforming military strategies and aircraft operations.


And What’s Happening In The UK?

Meanwhile, back in the UK, AI and aviation are also coming together as firms push forward with innovative technology to change air transport. Windracers, based in the UK, leads efforts to incorporate autonomous aircraft into commercial and humanitarian efforts. Their ULTRA UAVs, used for tasks from delivering mail to providing humanitarian aid, demonstrate the advancements being made in this sector. Stephen Wright, founder and chair of Windracers, said, “We aim to transform this industry into one that is low-cost and fully automated.”

Windracers works closely with organisations like Royal Mail, Royal Navy, and the British Antarctic Survey, showcasing the versatile applications of their technology. The ULTRA platform is noted for its ability to transport substantial loads over considerable distances at minimal operational costs. “The ULTRA platform can carry 100 kilograms up to 1,000 kilometers and is equipped for short takeoffs and landings,” Wright elaborated.