DARPA reports on the Air Combat Evolution program’s newest breakthrough, which took a regular F-16 fighter jet, equipped it with an Artificial Intelligence program capable of taking the controls, and let the AI take off, engage with a virtual enemy, and land safely, all without a human pilot doing anything:
In early December 2022, ACE algorithm developers uploaded their AI software into a specially modified F-16 test aircraft known as the X-62A or VISTA (Variable In-flight Simulator Test Aircraft), at the Air Force Test Pilot School (TPS) at Edwards Air Force Base, California, and flew multiple flights over several days. The flights demonstrated that AI agents can control a full-scale fighter jet and provided invaluable live-flight data.
“Thanks to the outstanding teamwork and coordination between DARPA, the Air Force Test Pilot School, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and our performer teams, we’ve made rapid progress in Phase 2 across all areas of the ACE program,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Ryan “Hal” Hefron, the DARPA program manager for ACE. “VISTA allowed us to streamline the program by skipping the planned subscale phase and proceeding directly to a full-scale implementation, saving a year or more and providing performance feedback under real flight conditions.”
DARPA performers EpiSci, PhysicsAI, Shield AI, and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory flew different F-16 AI algorithms on the X-62A. The aircraft, a highly modified two-seat F-16, can be programmed to demonstrate the flight-handling characteristics of a variety of different aircraft types. VISTA was upgraded recently with the System for Autonomous Control of Simulation (SACS), making the aircraft a perfect platform to test ACE’s autonomous F-16 AI agents. A safety pilot was on board the VISTA aircraft to take control if anything went awry.
“We conducted multiple sorties [takeoffs and landings] with numerous test points performed on each sortie to test the algorithms under varying starting conditions, against various simulated adversaries, and with simulated weapons capabilities,” Hefron said. “We didn’t run into any major issues but did encounter some differences compared to simulation-based results, which is to be expected when transitioning from virtual to live. This highlights the importance of not only flight testing advanced autonomous capabilities but doing so on testbeds like VISTA, which allowed us to rapidly learn lessons and iterate at a much faster rate than with other air vehicles.”