US Air Force and DARPA test first dogfight with AI-piloted X-62A VISTA aircraft

U.S. Air Force photo

The US Air Force Test Pilot School (USAFTPS) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have collaborated to test advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. The tests were conducted using the X-62A VISTA aircraft as part of DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program. 

The Variable In-Flight Stability Test Aircraft, also known as X-62A VISTA, played a crucial role in the tests. X-62A testing began in December 2022, and in February 2023, it completed a series of 12 flights at Edwards Air Force Base in California, US. In the following year, the aircraft conducted the first AI versus human dogfights, which involved implementing “over 100,000 lines of flight-critical software changes across 21 test flights.” 

Within a year, the teams progressed from installing live AI agents into the aircraft’s systems to demonstrating the first AI versus human dogfights, involving over 100,000 lines of flight-critical software changes across 21 test flights. The AI dogfights pitted the X-62A VISTA against manned F-16 aircraft above Edwards Air Force Base.  

“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,” said Col. James Valpiani, commandant of the Test Pilot School. “We’ve fundamentally changed the conversation by showing this can be executed safely and responsibly.” 

While safety pilots were onboard with the ability to disengage the AI, they never had to activate the safety switch during the dogfights. 

US Secretary of the Air Force, Frank Kendall, commended the milestone, stating, “The potential for autonomous air-to-air combat has been imaginable for decades, but the reality has remained a distant dream up until now.” Kendall is set to witness AI in action during an upcoming test flight at Edwards Air Force Base. 

What is the X-62A VISTA? 

The X-62A VISTA is a highly modified version of the General Dynamics F-16D, which the USAF has utilized since the early 1990s to test advanced technology.  

In 1992, it was first flown as NF-16D, featuring a multi-axis thrust-vectoring engine nozzle, which gave it enhanced maneuverability characteristics. During the early 2000s, the same aircraft was used to test Direct Voice Input technology and virtual head-up display, features later incorporated into the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fifth-generation fighter jet. 

In June 2021, the NF-16D received the X-plane designation X-62 and became part of the USAF’s Skyborg program. This program unites a range of agencies and companies to develop airframes and software for upcoming Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA): highly capable AI-piloted drones, also known as loyal wingmen.   

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