Drone fighter planes ‘being programmed for mid-air dog fight…

Drone fighter planes capable of thinking for themselves in mid-air dog fights against enemy human pilots are being developed by US military researchers.

Autonomous aircraft equipped with artificial intelligence and pre-programmed with vast hours of training time are being readied to test against real-life Top Guns in fighter jets as early as next year, according to a US general’s email exchange with a senior military scientist.

If future trials are successful, the technology could usher in a new era of warfare with robot planes that adapt to situations in mid-air without the need for a person on the ground remotely-controlling their moves.


During a video interview with the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies, Lieutenant General Jack Shanahan, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Centre, described the unmanned fighter drone programme as a “bold idea”.

The Skyborg drone could be ready for missions in 2023 as a robot wingman for human colleagues (Air Force Research Laboratory)

Lt General Shanahan said he had swapped emails with Dr Steven Rogers, a senior scientist at the Air Force Research Laboratory, who outlined plans to test an “autonomous system to go up against a human, manned system in some sort of air-to-air” in summer 2021.

However, the general added he thought the planned trials where “machine beats human” would have a “hard time” meeting such a tight schedule.

He went on to say that that AI would transform the “character of warfare” in the next 20 years as defence officials adopt the “mindset of a software company”.

Dr Rogers has previously told Inside Defence: “Our human pilots, the really good ones, have a couple of thousand hours of experience.

“What happens if I can augment their ability with a system that can have literally million of hours of training time?

“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?”

The Air Force Research Laboratory is also currently working with private firms to develop stealth-type drones that include the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie, an experimental combat aerial vehicle which has a 28ft wingspan and undertook its maiden flight last year.

The megadrone is capable of long-range flights at “high-subsonic” speeds of up to 652mph, which is still slower than a jet, yet much cheaper than the $80 million (£62 million) F-35.

Its role would be to escort fighters and undertake surveillance, but it is also bomb-equipped and could be programmed to fly as part of a drone “swarm”.

Robot planes in the future could battle real pilot Top Guns, as played here by Tom Cruise

Skyborg, another “low cost” unmanned combat aerial vehicle being developed by the US military, could be controlled by a human fight jet pilot so it becomes a robot wingman on missions.

In Britain, the Ministry of Defence previously announced development for the RAF of the Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft, a cost-cutting drone also designed for deployment alongside jets such as the F-35 and Typhoon, to provide protection, survivability” and relay back intelligence to human pilot colleagues via a secure link.

RAF test flights could take place “as early as 2022”, the government said.

Lt General Shanahan said the military must learn from challenges during the development of autonomous cars, which are being created by companies such as Elon Musk’s Tesla and Uber.

Cars made by both firms have been involved with fatal crashes at a much lower level of autonomy than is needed for a pilotless combat drone.
In theory, these top tiers of autonomy – know as levels four and five – could provide safety-critical functions throughout an entire mission and have performance equalling a human.

Space entrepreneur Musk previously fuelled debate on combat drones when he tweeted that an F-35 jet would have “no chance against” a drone fighter plane remotely controlled by a human, “but with its manoeuvres augmented by autonomy”.

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