US Air Force wants to pit AI-powered drone against its dogfighting hotshots in battle of the skies next year

Fliers v fine-tuned code, who will win?

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The US Air Force wants to pit an autonomous aircraft against another fighter jet controlled by a human pilot in July 2021.

The American Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has been quietly working towards that goal for a while, and it has more than one ongoing project focused on building unmanned, autonomous aircraft.

The ambitious battle was hinted at by Lieutenant General Jack Shanahan, according to Air Force Mag. Shanahan recently retired as director of the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center and has had a long career in the Air Force spanning more than 35 years.

In an interview with The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, he revealed that Steve Rogers, a senior scientist for autonomy at the AFRL, wanted to test autonomous aircraft against humans “in some sort of air-to-air dogfight” next year in July. Shanahan called it a “bold idea”.

“[Team leader Steve Rogers] is probably going to have a hard time getting to that flight next year…when the machine beats the human,” Shanahan said. “If he does it, great.”

You can watch the full interview here.

Youtube Video

The idea for a machine versus meatbag showdown was initially described as a “moonshot” by Rogers, who leads the AFRL’s Autonomy Capability Team 3. The team was given funding to develop machine learning software to drive “manned-unmanned combat” to “demonstrate autonomy capabilities to develop and demonstrate autonomy technologies that will improve Air Force operations through human-machine teaming and autonomous decision-making.”

RAF F-35B ZM137, visiting the UK in 2016. Crown copyright

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Shanahan did not reveal any technical details about what type of drone would be used in such a fight or what technologies were driving autonomous military aircraft. The US Air Force also has another program to experiment with self-flying combat vehicles called Skyborg. It aims to have a working prototype by 2023.

“We know there is heavy investment by our near-peer adversaries in artificial intelligence and autonomy in general,” Ben Tran, Skyborg’s program manager, previously said in a statement.

“We know that when you couple autonomy and AI with systems like low-cost attritables, that can increase capability significantly and be a force multiplier for our Air Force and so the 2023 goal line is our attempt at bringing something to bear in a relatively quick time frame to show that we can bring that kind of capability to the fight.” ®

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