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AI flies a US Air Force plane for first time ever

AI co-pilot on U-2 Dragon Lady
U-2 Dragon Lady prepares to land at Beale Air Force, Calif., following the test on Dec. 15, 2020. Photo: US Air Force

A U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane flew with artificial intelligence as a working aircrew member onboard on December 15, marking the first such achievement for the US Air Force.

The AI algorithm, known as ARTUµ, flew with the pilot, US Air Force Maj. “Vudu”, on a U-2 Dragon Lady assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base.

Air Combat Command’s U-2 Federal Laboratory researchers developed ARTUµ and trained it to execute 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.”

During this flight, ARTUµ was responsible for sensor employment and tactical navigation, while the pilot flew the aircraft and coordinated with the AI on sensor operation. Together, they flew a reconnaissance mission during a simulated missile strike. ARTUµ’s primary responsibility was finding enemy launchers while the pilot was on the lookout for threatening aircraft, both sharing the U-2’s radar.

The flight was part of a precisely constructed scenario which pitted the AI against another dynamic computer algorithm in order to prove the new technology.

“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.”

Maj. “Vudu”, a U-2 Dragon Lady pilot assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, prepares to taxi after returning from a training sortie at Beale Air Force, Calif., Dec. 15, 2020.

After takeoff, the sensor control was positively handed-off to ARTUµ who then manipulated the sensor, based on insight previously learned from over a half-million computer simulated training iterations. The pilot and AI successfully teamed to share the sensor and achieve the mission objectives.

The U-2 Federal Laboratory designed this AI technology to be easily transferable to other systems and plan to further refine the technology. Today’s flight provided invaluable data for not only the team to learn from, but also ARTUµ.

“Blending expertise of a pilot with capabilities of machine learning, this historic flight directly answers the National Defense Strategy’s call to invest in autonomous systems,” said Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett. “Innovations in artificial intelligence will transform both the air and space domains.”

The historic flight with AI comes just two months after the U-2 Federal Laboratory team updated inflight software for the first time during a U-2 training mission, leveraging the open-source container-orchestration software Kubernetes in another military first.