AI Successfully Copiloted U-2 Spyplane, For the First Time Ever

One day, the U.S. Air Force may send uncrewed military aircraft fitted with AI to execute missions.
Brad Bergan

The United States Air Force has passed a crucial milestone in its implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) in human-controlled flight.

Earlier this week, it flew a U-2 spy plane out of a California base — integrated with an AI system designed to work in tandem with the pilot, according to a blog post on the Air Force's official website.


AI copiloted U-2 spyplane with human pilot, for the first time

The Air Force's statement said the new partnership represents the first time an AI served as "a working aircrew member on-board a military aircraft."

The Air Force calls the AI system ARTUμ — and it managed sensor and navigational operations while the pilot handled the flying itself. "During the flight, ARTUμ was responsible for sensor employment and tactical navigation, while the pilot flew the aircraft and coordinated with the AI on sensor operation," said the Air Force in the blog post. 

The AI controlling the sensor in this flight had trained on data representing more than 500,000 "simulated training iterations," according to the military. This flight aimed to seek out missile launchers using radar.

Near future may see some missions integrated with AI

"For the most part, I was still very much the pilot in command," said the aviator, Vudu — their call sign — to the Washington Post. Flying a U-2 spy plane is a complex proposition. Aviators who deign to pilot one must wear spacesuits — and if the AI succeeded, it would reduce the number of tasks resting on the pilot, who is already operating a high-altitude, intelligence-gathering jet plane.

"The missions are reconnaissance-based," said one U-2 pilot to Popular Science during a 2019 Air Force event. "If you think about the hot spots on the globe — right now we're focusing on big players like China, and Russia, Iran, North Korea — there's probably a U-2 flying somewhere in those areas right now, taking a look at what's going on."

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In the near future, we may see some missions with human pilots, but others integrated with AI assets.

U-2 Dragon
U-2 Dragon Lady prepares to land. Source: United States Air Force

Uncrewed planes with AI could exceed human capabilities

There exist several Air Force programs with an emphasis on exploring the idea of mixing human and AI contributions to missions. Besides this latest flight, another has to do with unmanned flying hardware — in which case one or several drones might fly with an advanced fighter jet — like an F-35 with a human pilot — to execute complex group tasks like dogfighting, or accelerating ahead of the pack to for advanced strike capabilities.

The Air Force is moving its plans forward with new contracts — bringing three companies into the fray, according to an announcement from last week. These aircraft-manufacturers will build pilotless craft possessing "the ability to fly in experimentation events while teaming with manned aircraft."

Generally speaking, the concept is for uncrewed planes to achieve capabilities considered beyond those of human pilots — which will augment the potential of a human-piloted aircraft. For example, AI could react more quickly to nearby threats, and the Air Force would probably rather lose an uncrewed and less pricey aircraft in battle than one whose cost can rise to $80 million, to say nothing of the value of human life.

U-2 Dragon Lady Takes Off
The U-2 Dragon Lady takes off. Source: United States Air Force

Skyborg program could start in July 2021

The new contracts fall under an umbrella program called Skyborg — total roughly $79.8 million, and were awarded to three different aerospace firms: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Boeing, and Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems. Of the contracts, the Air Force said forthcoming "experimentation events" may begin in July of 2021.

Drones have flown remotely in the skies of countries far away from the U.S. since the 2000s. During the twenty-teens, U.S. military areas of interest shifted toward China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran — all regions where active combat is more likely to see greater casualties. But as AI is more fully integrated to assist human pilots, future skirmishes and wars (should they happen) may see more effective — and less deadly — results for military aircraft pilots than ever before. At least for the Americans.

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