An autonomous fighter pilot shot down a human aerial ace in virtual combat.

Watch the birdie: Built by defense contractor Heron Systems, the system also defeated automated rivals from seven other companies to win the AlphaDogfight trial. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) organized the contest as a way for defense contractors to test autonomous air-to-air combat systems.

No points for second place: The companies began building their systems last August. They competed last week in a round robin tournament, each contestant trying to nail its opponent in simulated dogfights using only nose guns.

  • Heron trained its F-16 piloting agent using reinforcement learning. The model had flown 4 billion dogfights, which is equivalent to roughly 12 years of combat experience.
  • The contest rules did not allow models to learn during the tournament.
  • The final foe was a human U.S. Air Force fighter pilot and F-16 instructor code named Banger. Heron’s model beat Banger five matches to zero. The AI’s advantages: faster reaction time and unconventional tactics such as flying extra-close to its opponent and shooting from unusual angles.

Target rich environment: The Darpa contest is part of a broader effort to develop autonomous aerial fighters.

  • In 2016, military researchers devised an automated fighter pilot that also beat a human. However, that trial was not a structured competition and didn’t test the AI against competing systems.
  • In July, the U.S. Air Force awarded contracts to four defense companies to develop an AI-powered drone wingman capable of controlling its own flight while watching a human pilot’s back. The current design doesn’t carry weapons.
  • Earlier in the year, the Royal Australian Air Force purchased three weapon-free drone wingmen from Boeing.

Revvin’ up the engines: Heron says its system isn’t likely to replace human pilots any time soon. Darpa says it aims to automate certain aspects of air combat, leaving the pilot more room to strategize.

We’re thinking: AI-driven fighter jets should be in movies, not future armies. We support the United Nations’ push for a global ban on autonomous weapons. Without such a ban, an unfortunate AI arms race seems inevitable.


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