The Air Force's Secret New Fighter Jet Will Come With an R2D2

From Popular Mechanics

  • Air Force pilots in the not-so-distant future could fly and fight together like Luke Skywalker and R2D2.

  • One of the Air Force's top officials is confident the service's secret new fighter jet will have an artificial intelligence copilot.

  • The AI could take over key tasks, flying and fighting the plane, to prevent the human pilot from being overwhelmed.

The U.S. Air Force's secret new fighter jet, which it designed, built, and tested in just one year, will feature some kind of artificial intelligence copilot-a trusted computer algorithm that human pilots can rely on to assume critical tasks in the air.

That's according to Will Roper, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, who in September shocked the world when he revealed the surprise existence of the service's new, mysterious Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter.

The Air Force has been incredibly tight-lipped about the sixth-generation fighter, only confirming it exists, and it's flying ... somewhere. But a few clues about NGAD have trickled out since the initial announcement, such as which defense contractor likely built the plane. And now, Roper has revealed (via Breaking Defense) that the NGAD will have an "AI-assisted copilot, maybe even ARTUµ."

That's the call sign-a.k.a. R2-that Roper and his team used to train the world-leading computer program µZero to operate a U-2 spy plane last week in California, marking the first time AI has controlled a U.S. military system.

In that groundbreaking experiment, the "crew" took part in an exercise centered around a simulated missile attack. The U-2 was assigned to locate enemy missile launchers on the ground. The human pilot kept a lookout for enemy aircraft, while the AI took over tactical navigation and sensors to search for the launch vehicles.

Photo credit: A1C Luis A.
Photo credit: A1C Luis A.  

Modern aerial warfare-even the act of flying the airplane-is growing increasingly complicated. Pilots must master interfaces, procedures, and individual sensors and weapon systems.

In addition to monitoring traditional things like altitude, speed, fuel state, and other factors in flight, a fifth-generation fighter pilot must also keep a watchful eye on a host of sensors, from the human eyeball to infrared sensors, threat warning systems, and radar. Once combat commences, flying becomes exponentially more complicated, as pilots must account for enemy air and surface-to-air capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses-while still flying the plane.

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An AI-assisted copilot could take on relatively simple tasks, such as communications, monitoring for threats, network security, and navigation. ARTUµ, which took over and tied together a U-2's navigation and sensors to search for missile launchers, is seemingly on the more advanced end of the AI cockpit buddy spectrum.

Meanwhile, a human pilot could concentrate on tasks reserved for humans, such as flying the plane, authorizing weapons releases, approving changes to flight plans, and communicating with other humans at home base, in the air, and on the ground. The AI could even free the pilot to use the most important tool available to the human mind-an imagination-to look at a developing situation and turn it to his or her advantage.

Roper revealed his plans to a recent Defense Writer's Group meeting, via Breaking Defense:

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