On Dec. 15, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) flew with artificial intelligence (AI) as a working aircrew member on a military aircraft for the first time.

The AI algorithm – known as ARTUµ –  flew on a U-2 Dragon Lady with Maj. “Vudu” on a test flight that “was the result of years of concerted effort within the Air Force to apply cutting-edge technology to military operations as it competes with other world powers in the digital age.”

The AI was responsible for sensor employment and tactical navigation during the flight and the pilot coordinated with the AI on sensor operation, in addition to flying the aircraft. The test flight was of a reconnaissance mission during a simulated missile strike.

“ARTUµ’s groundbreaking flight culminates our three-year journey to becoming a digital force,” said Dr. assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology, and logistics Dr. William Roper in a press release. “Putting AI safely in command of a U.S. military system for the first time, ushers in a new age of human-machine teaming and algorithmic competition. Failing to realize AI’s full potential will mean ceding decision advantage to our adversaries.”

Developed by the Air Combat Command’s U-2 Federal Laboratory, the AI is trained to execute specific in-flight tasks that would ordinarily be done by the pilot. During the simulated test flight, the AI was responsible for finding enemy launchers. Sensor control was handed off to the AI after takeoff, with the AI manipulating the sensor based on insight from over a half-million computer simulated trainings.

“Blending expertise of a pilot with capabilities of machine learning, this historic flight directly answers the National Defense Strategy’s call to invest in autonomous systems,” said Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett. “Innovations in artificial intelligence will transform both the air and space domains.”

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Jordan Smith
Jordan Smith
Jordan Smith is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.