The US Air Force successfully tested this AI-controlled jet fighter
An autonomous jet fighter has now completed 17 hours of flight testing, including advanced fighter maneuvers and beyond-visual-range engagements, according to the United States Air Force. The X-62A Variable Stability In-Flight Simulator Test Aircraft, or VISTA, was put through its paces at Edwards Air Force Base in California during the first half of December 2022 in 12 different flight tests of the Air Force Research Lab's Autonomous Air Combat Operations (AACO) and DARPA's Air Combat Evolution (ACE) AI agents.
"The X-62A VISTA team has proven with this test campaign that they are capable of complex AI test missions that accelerate the development and testing of autonomy capabilities for the DOD," said Dr. Malcolm Cotting, the director of research for the US Air Force Test Pilot School.
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The X-62 began life as a two-seat Block 30 F-16D and first flew in 1992, spending much of its time at the Air Force Test Pilot's School at Edwards AFB. In 2021 it was redesignated from NF-16D--the N indicating it was a special test aircraft--to X-62A. Modifications made to the aircraft over the years allow it to simulate the flight characteristics of other fixed-wing aircraft, making it an effective training platform for human test pilots, as in the past, and most recently, AI pilots.
"After training our AI-driven autonomy agents using high-performance computing and modeling and simulation, it is critical that we fly these agents to validate the difference from the simulator to live flights. Having an aircraft like the X-62 is critical to rapid flight testing of these autonomous behaviors," said an AACO official.
The Air Force describes the X-62A as "a flight test accelerator." The test team can fly a mission, land, and rapidly update or change the AI agent, then fly another test mission within hours, thanks to the modifications made as part of the VISTA program. During the flights, a human pilot is on board, able to take over should it be necessary.=
"We conducted multiple sorties [takeoffs and landings] with numerous test points performed on each sortie to test the algorithms under varying starting conditions, against various simulated adversaries, and with simulated weapons capabilities. We didn't run into any major issues but did encounter some differences compared to simulation-based results, which is to be expected when transitioning from virtual to live. This highlights the importance of not only flight testing advanced autonomous capabilities but doing so on testbeds like VISTA, which allowed us to rapidly learn lessons and iterate at a much faster rate than with other air vehicles," said Air Force Lt. Col. Ryan "Hal" Hefron, the DARPA program manager for ACE.