Fighter aircraft will soon get AI pilots. But they will be wingmen, not squadron leaders
Classic dogfights, in which two pilots match wits and machines to shoot down their opponent with well-aimed gunfire, are a thing of the past. Guided missiles have seen to that, and the last recorded instance of such duelling was 32 years ago, near the end of the Iran-Iraq war, when an Iranian F-4 Phantom took out an Iraqi Su-22 with its 20mm cannon.
But memory lingers, and dogfighting, even of the simulated sort in which the laws of physics are substituted by equations running inside a computer, is reckoned a good test of the aptitude of a pilot in training. And that is also true when the pilot in question is, itself, a computer program. So, when America's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an adventurous arm of the Pentagon, considered the future of air-to-air combat and the role of artificial intelligence (AI) within that future, it began with basics that Manfred von Richthofen himself might have approved of.
In August eight teams, representing firms ranging from large defence contractors to tiny startups, gathered virtually under the auspices of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, for the three-day final of DARPA's AlphaDogfight trials. Each had developed algorithms to control a virtual F-16 in simulated dogfights. First, these were to be pitted against each other. Then the winner took on a human being.
Dropping the pilot?
"When I got started", says Colonel Dan Javorsek, who leads DARPA's work in this area, "there was quite a bit of scepticism of whether the ai algorithms would be up to the task." In fact, they were. The winner, created by Heron Systems, a small firm in the confusingly named town of California, Maryland, first swept aside its seven digital rivals and then scored a thumping victory against the human, a pilot from America's air force, in five games out of five.