USAF Test Pilot School and DARPA announce breakthrough in aerospace machine learning

  • Published
  • By Chase Kohler
  • 412th Test Wing

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — The U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency were finalists for the 2023 Robert J. Collier Trophy, a formal acknowledgement of recent breakthroughs that have launched the machine-learning era within the aerospace industry.

The teams worked together to test breakthrough executions in artificial intelligence algorithms using the X-62A VISTA aircraft as part of DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program.

“The potential for autonomous air-to-air combat has been imaginable for decades, but the reality has remained a distant dream up until now. In 2023, the X-62A broke one of the most significant barriers in combat aviation. This is a transformational moment, all made possible by breakthrough accomplishments of the X-62A ACE team,” said Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall. Secretary Kendall will soon take flight in the X-62A VISTA to personally witness AI in a simulated combat environment during a forthcoming test flight at Edwards.

In less than a calendar year the teams went from the initial installation of live AI agents into the X-62A’s systems, to demonstrating the first AI versus human within-visual-range engagements, otherwise known as a dogfight. In total, the team made over 100,000 lines of flight-critical software changes across 21 test flights.

Dogfighting is a highly complex scenario that the X-62A utilized to successfully prove using non-deterministic artificial intelligence safely is possible within aerospace. The AI dogfights paired the X-62A VISTA against manned F-16 aircraft in the skies above Edwards. Initial flight safety was built up first using defensive maneuvers, before switching to offensive high-aspect nose-to-nose engagements where the dogfighting aircraft got as close as 2,000 feet at 1,200 miles per hour.

The first-ever use of machine-learning-based autonomy in flight-critical systems will serve as a foundation for future aerospace AI advances that are both safer and more reliable in both commercial and defense applications.

“The X-62A is an incredible platform, not just for research and advancing the state of tests, but also for preparing the next generation of test leaders. When ensuring the capability in front of them is safe, efficient, effective and responsible, industry can look to the results of what the X-62A ACE team has done as a paradigm shift. We've fundamentally changed the conversation by showing this can be executed safely and responsibly,” said Col. James Valpiani, commandant of the Test Pilot School.

While traditional autonomy has been executed for decades, machine learning has been historically prohibited due to high risk and lack of independent control. The X-62A is flown with safety pilots onboard with the independent ability to disengage the AI. However, test pilots did not have to activate the safety switch at any point during the dogfights over Edwards. “We have to be able to trust these algorithms to use them in a real-world setting,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Hefron, ACE program manager for DARPA.

While dogfighting was the primary testing scenario, it was not the end goal.

“It's very easy to look at the X-62A ACE program and see it as under autonomous control, it can dogfight, but that misses the point. Dogfighting was the problem to solve so we could start testing autonomous artificial intelligence systems in the air. Every lesson we're learning applies to every task you could give to an autonomous system,” said Bill Gray, the school’s chief test pilot.

The breakthrough in machine learning will continue as teams from both the Test Pilot School and DARPA look to advance lessons learned onto future programs of record. The X-62A VISTA will continue to serve a variety of customers for research, while providing key academic lessons for the next generation of test leaders.

The ACE program is a result of robust collaborations between academia, government, and private industry. Government partners include the Air Force Test Center, Air Force Research Laboratory, DARPA and the Air Force Test Pilot School. Academic partners include Johns Hopkins University and the MIT Lincoln Laboratory. Industry partners on ACE include Calspan Corporation, Cubic Corporation, EpiSci, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works and Shield AI.

"The X-62A VISTA demonstration was enabled by multi-million dollar investments from the AFRL Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office, or SDPE, working with the Air Force Test Center to modify the VISTA aircraft as part of an entire ecosystem including a digital test environment, the VISTA aircraft to rapidly explore new autonomy/AI behaviors and uncrewed system test flights for final validation," said Chris Ristich, director of the AFRL Integrated Capabilities Directorate. 

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