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Air Force plans to pit autonomous fighter drone against human pilot

The Air Force plans to test an autonomous fighter drone controlled by artificial intelligence against a human pilot in war games, it has been revealed.

Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, head of the Pentagon's Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, said on Thursday that the Air Force Research Laboratory hope to conduct the test in July 2021.

Shanahan, speaking at a virtual event organized by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, did not reveal any specific details of the planned AI fighter jet's design or capabilities.

However, the Air Force hopes that a fighter drone piloted by AI would be able to react faster to opponents, as well as conduct harder, faster maneuvers that would be impossible with a human on board, as they would overwhelm the body.

Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, head of the Pentagon's Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, said on Thursday that the Air Force Research Laboratory hope to conduct the test in July 2021

A mock dogfight is just the first step in testing such systems, however, and Shanahan isn't yet convinced that AI could beat a human pilot yet.

'[Team leader Steve Rogers] is probably going to have a hard time getting to that flight next year … when the machine beats the human,' Shanahan said. 'If he does it, great.' 

However the project heads are optimistic about the future of autonomous flying, having watched autonomous cars develop significantly in recent years. 

'Our human pilots, the really good ones, have a couple thousand hours of experience,' Rogers told Inside Defense in 2018. 

'What happens if I can augment their ability with a system that can have literally millions of hours of training time?' he continued. 'How can I make myself a tactical autopilot so in an air-to-air fight, this system could help make decisions on a timeline that humans can't even begin to think about?'

It's unclear what the autonomous fighter jet would look like, but it could be a modified version of an existing plane. An F-35B Lightning II is seen above in a file photo

An autonomous fighter prototype would be just the latest artificial intelligence protect to emerge from the Pentagon.

Last year, the Air Force revealed footage of a new 'wingman' fighter drone that would accompany manned jets.

The XQ-58A Valkyrie was developed in just over 2.5 years, from contract award to first flight – a milestone that took place March 2019 at the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona.

The Air Force released footage from the unmanned XQ-58A Valkyrie’s inaugural flight this week, and says the demonstrator craft behaved ‘as expected.’

While the Air Force is often guarded about the progress of its emerging craft, flight enthusiasts were treated to a brief look at the new Valkyrie as it took its maiden voyage in the Arizona skies thanks to a 15-second clip shared on YouTube this week.

The XQ-58 Valkyrie is a long-range, high subsonic unmanned air vehicle (UAV) developed by the Air Force Research Lab in partnership with Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems. During its inaugural flight, it was in the air for 76 minutes

The XQ-58 Valkyrie is a long-range, high subsonic unmanned air vehicle (UAV) developed by the Air Force Research Lab in partnership with Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems.

During its inaugural flight, it was in the air for 76 minutes.

The combat drone will be put through a total of five planned test flights in its two phases of development.

This will help to evaluate and perfect system functionality, aerodynamic performance, and launch and recovery systems, the Air Force says.

XQ-58 was developed under the Air Force Research Lab’s Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) portfolio, which is working to create military craft at cheaper prices.

‘The objectives of the LCAAT initiative include designing and building UAS faster by developing better design tools, and maturing and leveraging commercial manufacturing processes to reduce build time and cost,’ the Air Force said in a statement. 

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