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AI Force: The New Airforce

Soon, manned aircraft and autonomous flying machines would collaborate in combat situations

Leather jackets, Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses and fighter planes might not be the future of the US Airforce and many other air forces in several countries. The next dogfights would happen with an AI Force or the Artificial Intelligence Force. Researchers at the US Airforce are designing an autonomous aircraft that can take down a manned plane in an air-to-air combat. AI powered fighter planes are no longer a sci-fi project, but very much a reality that was initiated by the US Air Force Laboratory (AFRL) back in 2018 with its AI-driven unmanned fighter jet project. It is now expected to be ready by July 2021.

Inside Defense – the leading agency for defence and aerospace news – had reported in May 2018 that the “big moonshot” would first insert machine-learning technology into a less-advanced plane, like an F-16, before trying it in a newer jet, like an F-35 or F-22. Such initiatives are essentially machine learning projects which attempts to pack thousands of hours of experience of human pilots into a single program that trains fighter planes (machines) to perform in combat with a far higher degree of accuracy and lethal efficiency than human pilots.

The objective is to develop a tactical autopilot system which in an air-to-air fight, could help make decisions on a timeline that humans can’t even begin to think about. Even the much vaunted F35 would be no match for this AI Fighter. Innovations like these are part of a slew of other AI-enabled systems the US Air Force is building into its inventory. The Air Force is pushing to add AI and machine learning algorithms to everything from maintenance practices to battle planning software.

The Skyborg wingman drone is another concept that is already in an advanced stage of being turned into an actual product. Researchers hope to get the aircraft – expected to be cheaper than other platforms and easily replaceable – combat-ready by the end of 2023. The wingman drone, which flies alongside a manned fighter plane, is an unmanned combat air vehicle capable of semi-autonomous missions and can operate in the loyal wingman role, where it is ‘tethered’ to and takes directions from a nearby manned platform via datalink. Stretch your imagination, and it’s an IoT device.

Boeing, too, has revealed new progress it has made with the first prototype of its own loyal wingman drone for the Royal Australian Air Force. The unmanned aircraft, which is still in an incomplete state, recently sat unsupported on its own landing gear for the first time and had its main electrical power system turned on.

A similar AFRL program, Kratos’ XQ-58A Valkyrie, completed its first flight test on March 5 this year. This 30-foot-long, experimental “wingman” aircraft will fly five tests in six months to validate its system functionality, aerodynamics, and launch and recovery systems, according to the Air Force. The Valkyrie is designed for long-range strike and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.

These AI-based game changing aviation technologies are taking us towards a world where manned aircraft and AI-driven autonomous flying machines would be working as a team in future combat scenarios.

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