DARPA to outfit F-16D jet fighter with artificial intelligence (AI) to boost trust in AI as a human partner

Feb. 23, 2022
ACE is applying AI to aircraft dogfighting in realistic experiments, and is developing ways to measure human trust in combat autonomy performance.

ARLINGTON, Va. – U.S. military researchers are moving forward on a project that relies heavily on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine autonomy in complex air combat maneuvering that involves manned aircraft and combat unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Officials of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., have issued a solicitation (HR001122S0015) for the Air Combat Evolution (ACE) Full-Scale Aircraft TA-4 project, which seeks to increase trust in combat autonomy using human-machine collaboration in aircraft dogfighting.

After a successful first phase, the ACE program has entered its second phase. This solicitation asks industry for proposals to convert existing F-16 aircraft into human-in-the-loop, safety-sandboxed testbed aircraft to support autonomy development and experimentation.

The solicitation involves technology areas that call for additional aircraft hardware and additional aircraft mission systems software integration to support autonomous within-visual-range maneuvering and trust research in the ACE program.

Related: PhysicsAI to develop artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms for high-performance unmanned combat aircraft

The additional aircraft options will support ACE as well as a wider range of autonomy development needs. The ACE project also will develop enabling technologies to enhance collaboration among humans and unmanned combat aircraft in a variety of combat scenarios.

ACE is applying existing AI technologies to aircraft dogfighting in experiments of increasing realism, and is developing ways to measure, calibrate, increase, and predict human trust in combat autonomy performance.

The program is scaling machine automation in aircraft dogfighting to more complex, heterogeneous, multi-aircraft, operational level simulated scenarios informed by live data. These scenarios are expected to lay the groundwork for future live, campaign-level experiments.

The idea is to enable one human pilot to become a more deadly warfighter by leading several semi-autonomous artificially intelligent unmanned aircraft, all from his own cockpit. This would shift the human role from sole operator to system mission commander.

Related: Researchers choose SoarTech to develop artificial intelligence (AI) for manned and unmanned dogfighting

In particular, ACE aims to enable a pilot to handle a broad, global air command mission while his aircraft and unmanned aircraft team members attack enemy aircraft and ground targets.

ACE would have the human pilot handle complicated jobs like developing an overall engagement strategy, selecting targets, and choosing weapons, and enable the combat UAVs to handle aircraft maneuver and engagement tactics.

To achieve this, however, the human pilot must be able to trust his unmanned wingmen to conduct complex tactics in scenarios like dogfights where adversaries are within visual range.

The primary objective of this solicitation is to develop full-scale experimental aircraft that can implement the ACE algorithms and technologies, including human machine interfaces (HMIs), generated by other ACE contractors.

Related: DARPA eyes heavier reliance on artificial intelligence (AI) and unmanned aircraft in dogfighting

The company chosen will modify and test two F-16D aircraft jet fighters to accept within-visual-range autonomy algorithms developed previously, and provide appropriate interfaces to integrate previously developed human-machine interfaces, safety pilot overrides, and a paddle off/on disconnect enable live within-visual-range engagements.

Companies interested should upload unclassified proposals no later than 18 March 2022 to the DARPA BAA website at https://baa.darpa.mil. Classified proposals require special handling.

Email questions or concerns to DARPA at [email protected]. More information is online at https://sam.gov/opp/a663ea810a3e4386ac3f0c09a78ccbd5/view.

About the Author

John Keller | Editor-in-Chief

John Keller is the Editor-in-Chief, Military & Aerospace Electronics Magazine--provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronics and optoelectronic technologies in military, space and commercial aviation applications. John has been a member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since 1989 and chief editor since 1995.

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