DARPA tested an AI-piloted F-16 jet in human vs AI dogfight

April 22, 2024

  • Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) developed an autonomous AI F-16 pilot
  • DARPA's Air Combat Evaluation (ACE) program is pursuing “trusted autonomy” in AI defense applications
  • The program pitted the AI pilot against humans in the first-ever in-air dogfight test

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) revealed that it performed the first-ever in-air test of an AI-piloted fighter jet in combat simulation against a human-piloted F-16.

The demonstrations of the AI pilot’s flying prowess took place at the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California in September 2023 but were only announced by DARPA recently.

The exercise saw the AI system developed by DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program pilot a specially modified F-16 test aircraft known as the X-62A, or VISTA (Variable In-flight Simulator Test Aircraft).

We previously reported on the X-62 and the Pentagon’s plan to add swarms of autonomous AI Ghost Jets to its arsenal. However, this is the first time an AI-piloted jet has flown in a dogfight scenario reminiscent of scenes from Top Gun.

The X-62 had two human pilots along for the ride just in case, but the AI remained fully in control as the F-16s flew within 2,000 feet of each other at 1,200 miles per hour.

The specially modified F-16 test aircraft the AI piloted. Source: DARPA

So who won? Unfortunately, officials won’t say. When an AI previously took human pilots on in a flight simulator, the AI came out on top.

Their reluctance to give us the score may have less to do with national security concerns and more with sparing the human pilots’ egos.

Lt. Col. Ryan Hefron, program manager for ACE said, “We had lots of test objectives that we were trying to achieve in that first round of tests. So asking the question of…who won? It doesn’t necessarily capture the nuance of the testing that we accomplished. But what I will say is that 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.”

DARPA says the primary goal of these experiments is to promote human-machine teaming and trusted autonomy. They want to be sure a human pilot can trust their AI wingman and have it follow their lead.

“We have to be able to trust these algorithms to use them in a real-world setting,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Hefron, ACE program manager for DARPA.

ACE aims to deliver a capability where a single human pilot can command and team up with autonomous AI aircraft to engage enemies more effectively. An AI-piloted jet could engage in maneuvers that would exceed the physical demands a human pilot could endure.

DARPA says it supports the commitment by the United States to “be the initiator and not the victim of strategic technological surprises.”

The Chinese are almost certainly working on a few AI defense surprises of their own.

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Eugene van der Watt

Eugene comes from an electronic engineering background and loves all things tech. When he takes a break from consuming AI news you'll find him at the snooker table.


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