AI-piloted F-16 Flew 17 Hours & Participated In Simulated Dogfights

AI-piloted F-16 Flew 17 Hours & Participated In Simulated Dogfights
The X-62A Variable stability In-flight Simulator Test Aircraft is flown alongside a T-38C Talon over Edwards Air Force Base, California, in September 2019, during Maj. Ali Hamidani’s U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School capstone project. (U.S. Air Force photo by Maj. Ali Hamidani)

The AI-piloted modified F-16 fighter jet flown by artificial intelligence (AI), has completed a series of 12 flights at Edwards United States Air Force (USAF) base in California, US.

The series of X-62A VISTA (Variable Stability In-Flight Simulator Test Aircraft) flights took place in December 2022 but have just been revealed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research and development branch of the US Department of Defense.

The AI fighter pilots came from two different efforts, DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program and the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Autonomous Air Combat Operations, or AACO, program. These AI algorithms were fed into a highly modified F-16D and sent out on a variety of air combat operations, including close-quarters dogfights and beyond-visual-range engagements.

This successful series of tests marks a significant step toward the advanced AI teaming expected to emerge as a part of the next generation of fighters, with the U.S. and a number of foreign allies and competitors all aiming to couple their next stealth jets with scores of specially equipped drone wingmen.

VISTA is a one-of-a-kind training airplane developed by Lockheed Martin Skunk Works in collaboration with Calspan Corporation for the USAF TPS. Built on open systems architecture, VISTA is fitted with software that allows it to mimic the performance characteristics of other aircraft.

“VISTA will allow us to parallelize the development and test of cutting-edge artificial intelligence techniques with new uncrewed vehicle designs,” said Dr. M. Christopher Cotting, U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School director of research. “This approach, combined with focused testing on new vehicle systems as they are produced, will rapidly mature autonomy for uncrewed platforms and allow us to deliver tactically relevant capability to our warfighter.”

Recent upgrades by the U.S. Air Force include an updated VISTA Simulation System (VSS) provided by Calspan, Lockheed Martin’s Model Following Algorithm (MFA), and System for Autonomous Control of the Simulation (SACS). The SACS and MFA systems are integrated together to provide new capabilities to the VISTA so it can be used to conduct the most advanced flight test experiments emphasizing autonomy and AI.

VISTA is a modified F-16D Block 30 Peace Marble Il aircraft upgraded with Block 40 avionics. Previously designated NF-16D, in June 2021 VISTA was recognized by the U.S. Air Force and deemed a national asset with a formal redesignation to VISTA X-62A.

This new mission system capability with VSS, MFA, and SACS emphasizes advancing autonomous aircraft algorithm development and integration. At the heart of the SACS system is the Skunk Works Enterprise-wide Open Systems Architecture (E-OSA) which powers the Enterprise Mission Computer version 2 (EMC2) or “Einstein Box.”

Additional SACS components include the integration of advanced sensors, a Multi-Level Security solution, and a set of Getac tablet displays in both cockpits. These components enhance VISTA’s capabilities while maintaining its rapid-prototyping advantage, specifically allowing for quick software changes to increase the frequency of flight test flights and accelerating the pace of AI and autonomy development to meet urgent national security needs.

For decades, Lockheed Martin has been applying and deploying trusted AI technologies to help its customers maximize performance, safety, and situational awareness across all domains. Lockheed Martin’s implementations keep people in control while enabling them to be safer, more effective, and better able to focus on higher-level tasks by empowering them to make more informed decisions quickly.

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