US Air Force AI Program Copilots Spy Plane in Historic Flight

The algorithm performed in-flight tasks that otherwise would be done by the pilot.

The US Air Force has, for the first time, used an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm program as copilot aboard a U-2 spy plane.

The AI algorithm, known as ARTUµ, flew a U-2 Dragon Lady and performed specific in-flight tasks that otherwise would be done by the pilot.

“ARTUµ’s groundbreaking flight culminates our three-year journey to becoming a digital force,” said Dr. William Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics.

“Putting AI safely in command of a US military system for the first time ushers in a new age of human-machine teaming and algorithmic competition. Failing to realize AI’s full potential will mean ceding decision advantage to our adversaries.”

Reconnaissance Mission With Simulated Missile Strike

The flight replicated a reconnaissance mission during a simulated missile strike where the AI program’s task was to find enemy launchers while the pilot was on the lookout for adversary aircraft.

As the plane took off, the sensor control Spy was handed over to the AI, which then manipulated the sensor based on insight previously learned from over half a million computer simulated training iterations, the USAF said.

A U-2 Dragon Lady aircraft
A U-2 Dragon Lady prepares to land at Beale Air Force, December 15, 2020. Photo: US Air Force/Airman 1st Class Luis A. Ruiz-Vazquez

The pilot and the AI successfully coordinated on sensor operation while flying. Both of them shared the U-2’s radar during the task.

Nod for Future Use

Throughout the carefully constructed mission, the AI was pitted against a rival computer algorithm to gauge its capabilities.

“We know that in order to fight and win in a future conflict with a peer adversary, we must have a decisive digital advantage,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. “AI will play a critical role in achieving that edge, so I’m incredibly proud of what the team accomplished. We must accelerate change and that only happens when our Airmen push the limits of what we thought was possible.”

The U-2 Federal Laboratory has designed the AI technology and is easily transferable to other systems as well.

The laboratory, established to bring together a “confluence of warfighter, developer, and acquirer” under the same operational roof, is planning to further refine the technology.

Buoyed by the success of the flight, USAF Secretary, Barbara Barrett, said that the test “answers the National Defense Strategy’s call to invest in autonomous systems” and that “innovations in artificial intelligence will transform both the air and space domains.”

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