Collaborative Air Combat Autonomy Program Makes Strides

DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program is half way through Phase 1 and has notched several key accomplishments in anticipation of live subscale aircraft dogfights in Phase 2 later this year. Achievements to date include: advanced virtual AI dogfights involving both within visual range (WVR) and beyond visual range (BVR) multi-aircraft scenarios with updated simulated weapons; live flights of an instrumented jet to measure pilot physiology and trust in AI; and initial modifications to the first full-scale jet trainer scheduled to host an onboard AI “pilot” in Phase 3 of the program.

“Our biggest focus at the end of Phase 1 is on the simulation-to-real transition of the AI algorithms as we prepare for live-fly sub-scale aircraft scenarios in late 2021,” said Col. Dan “Animal” Javorsek, program manager in DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office. “Managing this transition to the real world is a critical test for most AI algorithms. In fact, prior efforts have been brittle to just these types of transitions because some solutions can be over reliant on digital artifacts from the simulation environment.”

The goal of the ACE program, which kicked off last year, is to develop trusted, scalable, human-level, AI-driven autonomy for air combat by using human-machine collaborative dogfighting as its challenge problem. In August 2020, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) executed the ACE program’s AlphaDogfight trials, a competition of eight teams whose AIs flew simulated F-16s in 1-v-1 aerial dogfights, developed by APL. The champion AI then flew five simulated dogfights against an experienced F-16 fighter pilot in a simulator, beating the human 5-0.

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