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US Air Force Tests AI on U-2 Spy Plane

A Lockheed Martin U-2 used by the USAF (Image: Lockheed Martin)

Artificial intelligence is making gains in various fields and just this past week it hit another milestone, this one in aviation. The United States Air Force flew the first test flight where artificial intelligence assisted the pilot of a Lockheed U-2 spy plane.

The test was conducted at Beale Air Force Base in California by the 9th Reconnaissance Wing. It was a significant step forward for national defense and served as a proving flight of artificial intelligence’s capabilities. The AI is known as ARTUµ and was designed to complete various in-flight tasks that would normally be done by the pilot.

The goals were to evaluate how it performed in coordination with a human and against another dynamic computer algorithm to prove the technology

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 during a simulated missile strike mission. The goal of the AI was to find enemy launches while the pilot was on the lookout for threatening aircraft.

This comes after the AI was trained using over half a million computer-simulated training iterations. Together the AI and the pilot were able to successfully achieve mission objectives.

The success of the training mission shows that AI has a place in the cockpit and can work together with humans. The U-2 Federal Laboratory designed this AI technology with the expectation to transfer it to other systems which it will do moving forward.

Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Q. Brown, Jr. said that in order to fight and win in future conflicts with adversaries of similar warfare and technological experience there must be a digital edge. This is where AI is expected to step in as now more than ever it is important to continually retain dominance in the digital space.

This artificial intelligence and those others that are in development are still in the early stages. They aren’t at a stage where it can completely replace a pilot. However, there isn’t much doubt that at some point AI systems will be good enough to autonomously operate aircraft. It’s not likely that it will completely replace the need for pilots but it is possible that instead of two human pilots on an aircraft an AI may take the place of one.

There is definitely commercial potential for an AI pilot. Human pilots are expensive and need rest periods to ensure performance. An AI would always be functional and would be expected to always be sharp.

It’s been a dream of many an airline bean counter to reduce the number of pilots necessary in the cockpit to one. At some point in the future, we will probably see it happen and the human copilot might go the way of the navigator on commercial aircraft.

Hemal Gosai


  • Hemal Gosai

    Hemal took his first flight at four years old and has been an avgeek since then. When he isn't working as an analyst he's frequently found outside watching planes fly overhead or flying in them. His favorite plane is the 747-8i which Lufthansa thankfully flies to EWR allowing for some great spotting. He firmly believes that the best way to fly between JFK and BOS is via DFW and is always willing to go for that extra elite qualifying mile.

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