AI-controlled Osprey MK3 drone completes its maiden flight

The United States Air Force has completed a critical AI-controlled autonomous flight of its modified Osprey Mark III unmanned aerial system.
Christopher McFadden
USAF engineers working on an Osprey MK III UAS.


The USAF reports that the United States Air Force's (USAF) "Osprey" Mark III unmanned aerial system (UAS) has completed its first fully autonomous test flight. Conducted on July 20, 2023, the test formed part of the USAF's larger Autonomy, Data, and AI Experimentation (ADAx) Proving Ground effort for the program, specifically the USAF's Autonomy Prime Environment for Experimentation or APEX, a subset of ADAx. The trial was conducted to evaluate and operationalize artificial intelligence and autonomy concepts to support warfighters on the evolving battlefield.

Connecting the dots

"AFWERX sponsored the testing. Air Force Research Lab’s Armament Directorate prepared the aircraft. The 416th Flight Test Squadron’s operators launched and recovered the MKIII, and 413th Flight Test Squadron personnel executed the testing. The 96th Operations Support Squadron also had a role and was instrumental in paving the way for APEX testing occurring simultaneously with manned airfield operations, according to Livermore," explained the USAF.

Works under ADAx also include assessments of magnetic navigation technology, enhanced digital and communications interoperability, autonomous drone airdrops, and other agile processes. “Our goal with APEX is proving a capability to safely and quickly test novel autonomy and AI on small UAS that is safe enough to be [near] other aircraft,” said Major Riley Livermore, ADAx experimentation lead.

“We want to prepare the warfighter for the digital future that’s upon us,” said Colonel Tucker Hamilton, 96th Operations Group commander and Air Force AI test and operations chief. “This event is about bringing the Eglin enterprise together and moving with urgency to incorporate these concepts in how we test," he added.

During the test, the "Osprey" was used as a testbed to validate algorithms supporting the Autonomy Prime Environment for Experimentation (APEX), an ADAx subset focusing on new unmanned aerial system flight methods. The aircraft was deployed by human operators, who then switched control to onboard autonomy and flew the system across designated airspace above Duke Field in Eglin Air Force Base.

APEX employed its "watchdog" algorithm during the test to ensure the "Osprey" drone did not breach user-defined airspace boundaries. Whenever the aircraft was close to crossing the boundary, the "watchdog" would disengage autonomy and steer the aircraft to a safe remediation point, like when players leave a designated area in a computer game.

The watchdog feature is also part of APEX's Test of Autonomy in Complex Environments (TACE), which is research on software that connects onboard autonomy and the aircraft. A TACE software screens commands from onboard autonomy before reaching the aircraft's autopilot.


The software can adjust the autonomy's worldview in tests to create safer, more realistic scenarios. At the same time, the ADAx team is developing the VENOM project, which involves modifying Eglin AFB's F-16 "Fighting Falcon" supersonic fighter jets into airborne testbeds to support autonomous strike evaluations.

The Project Fast Open X-Platform (FOX) aims to create an open software enclave that allows installing apps onto aircraft without altering the proprietary source code. These apps are designed to enhance mission capabilities, including real-time data analysis, threat replication for training, manned-unmanned teaming, and machine learning.

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