A tactical aircraft has made the first-ever flight being piloted purely by artificial intelligence (AI), according to a release from Lockheed Martin. Flying for a staggering 17 hours, the AI-piloted a VISTA X-62A tactical test aircraft that is used to mimic military jets in a trial that hopes to add new capabilities to the VISTA and further automation in military vehicles.
"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, in a statement.
"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."
The AI pilot combined two of Lockheed Martin's autonomous systems, Model Following Algorithm (MFA) and System for Autonomous Control of the Simulation (SACS), to take control of the aircraft while in flight and perform tests “emphasizing autonomy and AI”, though it is unclear exactly what was performed. Autopilots have been capable of maintaining flight and taking over in dire situations for many years, but AI breaking into tactical warfare is a monumentally tougher task.
To test it out, Lockheed Martin used the VISTA X-62A, which is essentially a modified modern F-16D used as a training aircraft. However, it is designated a national asset and there is only one of them in existence, so use of it is limited – the VISTA is also currently being inspected but flights will resume later this year.
Coupled with the serious tech on board, it will now be used as a test bed for AI during controlled flight and in training scenarios, with the potential of training future pilots.
This is a massive deal because finding experienced pilots to train new recruits is no easy feat. While Top Gun may have you thinking that every person training you can take down next-generation jets in a 1970s aircraft, Air Forces are no longer the size they used to be due to extreme costs, so taking ace pilots out of service and into a trainer role is difficult. Should AI help alleviate this burden, new pilots could be trained faster and be of a higher quality.