Lockheed Martin's new jet was flown by AI for 17 hours in world first

Lockheed Martin, and the United States Air Force, are currently developing an AI-powered F-16 variant called the VISTA X-62A.
Christopher McFadden

In December 2021, during a test flight from California's Edwards Air Force Base, a special Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jet trainer called the VISTA X-62A became the first tactical aircraft to be controlled by AI.

This could be a big deal, as new pilots must be trained to fly high-performance planes in various conditions. Because making and maintaining fighter planes is so expensive, air forces today are much smaller than they used to be. This makes it hard to set aside enough of these "flying thoroughbreds" for training.

Engineers now have a tool that can do two things at once, thanks to the progress of artificial intelligence. The "Variable In-flight Simulation Test Aircraft" (VISTA), created by Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works classified research laboratory in collaboration with Calspan Corporation, is used at the US Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards to simulate the flying characteristics of various aircraft. Additionally, it includes having autonomy.

The VISTA X-62A is an upgraded F-16D Block 30 Peace Marble II with Block 40 avionics installed. It was first called the NF-16D, but in June 2021, the US government declared it a national asset and changed its name to the X-62A.

The VISTA X-62A has extremely cutting-edge capabilities inside its stressed aluminum alloy skin. Calspan's "VISTA Simulation System" (VSS) and Lockheed Martin's "Model Following Algorithm" (MFA), and "System for Autonomous Control of the Simulation" (SACS) are two of the most notable.

Together, they give the plane new features that turn it into a system that can fly itself and a place to test artificial intelligence. The "Enterprise Mission Computer" version 2 (EMC2), also known as the "Einstein Box," which is meant to let older systems link together for sharing of data across all domains, is managed by the Skunk Works' "Enterprise-wide Open Systems Architecture" (E-OSA) on the SACS system.

In addition, the cockpit's forward and aft sections each use Getac tablet displays and sophisticated sensors.

Lockheed says that the Vista X-62A has better features and can also make quick software changes for rapid prototyping, which speeds up development and lets more test flights happen.

The VISTA X-62A is currently being inspected; the flight will resume once finished.

"VISTA will allow us to parallelize the development and test of cutting-edge artificial intelligence techniques with new uncrewed vehicle designs," explained Dr. M. Christopher Cotting, US. Air Force Test Pilot School director of research. "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 war fighter," he added.

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