AI-powered fighter pilot trumps over human in aerial dogfight

The dogfight had to be called off after 90 seconds since the AI outmaneuvered the human pilot.
Ameya Paleja
Two Supermarine Spitfires
Two Supermarine Spitfires


Researchers at the China Aerodynamics Research and Development Centre, a military-funded research institute in southwestern China, developed an artificial intelligence-powered flying bot that beat a human pilot in a real-life dogfight, South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported. The dogfight had to be called off after 90 seconds since the AI outmaneuvered the human pilot.

The concept of using AI for piloting has been around for many decades. While this might seem straightforward when cruising at an altitude for a civilian plane, a fighter plane is a world apart. The flight dynamics for a fighter are vastly different and keep changing rapidly in contested environments. Last month, Lockheed Martin made news when its AI flew an F-16 for 17 hours. However, the Chinese researchers took their AI a few steps ahead by engaging it in a dogfight.

According to SCMP's report, the dogfight wasn't carried out using actual fighter planes but used small aircraft instead. However, AI was developed isn't aircraft specific and can be deployed on any plane going forward. A human pilot remotely controlled the non-AI plan.

How AI outmaneuvered human pilot

When the dogfight began, the human pilot moved the aircraft to gain a tactical advantage, but the AI predicted this move and ensured that it stuck close behind its opponent through its maneuvers.

Next, the human pilot dove the plane downward, hoping that the AI would follow suit and perhaps crash the aircraft. Instead of following, the AI set the plane in an ambush position and waited for the human pilot plane to pull up. Even when the human plot tried other maneuvers, the AI always came out on top, and the dogfight had to be called off.

The researchers published their findings in  Acta Aeronautica et Astronautica Sinica, a Chinese peer-reviewed journal hailing it as the arrival of the era where AI is the king. That the AI does not have the same limitations as the human body, such as the effects of excess gravitational pull, also played in its favor.

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AI-powered fighter pilot trumps over human in aerial dogfight
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In 2020, a U.S.-based company demonstrated a similar ability when its ground-based AI defeated experienced F-16 fighter pilots in a simulation. The Chinese researchers not only replicated this feat but also did so by using a fraction of the computing resources needed by their U.S. counterparts.

While AI-based technology works well on the ground, taking it to the air is another hurdle the researchers have managed to cross. For the current study, the AI performed many simulations on the ground. However, in the future, it could do so in the air and learn from its mistakes while on missions, the researchers argue.

Interestingly, the researchers used the NVIDIA TX2 module to power their AI, a chip capable of making 1,000 decisions per second. While the U.S. had banned NVIDIA from exporting its high-end chips to China, the TX2 is not on the list of banned products, the SCMP added in its report.

Last week, Interesting Engineering also reported how Chinese researchers were also turning to AI for solutions for engaging in dogfights during hypersonic flight.

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