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AI That Bested Air Force Pilot In “Digital Dogfights” Headed For L-39 Jet Trainer

The software company whose artificial intelligence, or AI, technology beat a human fighter pilot in multiple dogfights carried out in a simulator during last year’s high-profile AlphaDogfight trials is going to get the chance to put it through its paces in a real jet. Heron Systems recently confirmed to The War Zone that “in the near future” it will integrate its systems into an L-39 Albatros jet trainer as part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Air Combat Evolution program, which looks at how AI and machine learning could be employed in air-to-air combat in the future.

Heron says it’s so far flown more than 70 flights to test its AI technology on unspecified real-world fixed-wing drones, including achieving AI-controlled dynamic flight maneuvers and following virtual waypoints. Meanwhile, the company has also continued to use its developments in AI to simulate adversaries and wingmen in the virtual reality realm.

This information was provided as part of a recent announcement that Heron had been acquired as a new division of Shield AI, a San Diego-based tech firm that specializes in autonomous AI-enabled defense technology, including adapting self-driving car technologies for use in military aircraft.

“Shield AI enables us the opportunity and scale to accelerate the integration of our AI-pilot on a next-generation fighter and UAS [unmanned aircraft system],” said Brett Darcey, Heron Systems general manager. “What stood out about Shield AI for us is that they’re really the only ones who have an operational AI pilot that can operate on the edge without GPS or comms, and this has been proven on combat operations.”

“Whoever has the best AI pilots will have a decisive and overwhelming advantage on the battlefield — inferior AI pilots will be quickly destroyed, militaries without AI pilots won’t stand a chance,” added Brandon Tseng, the cofounder of Shield AI.

The combined Shield AI and Heron team is excited and humbled to contribute to the warfighter, national security, and global stability by operationalizing AI pilots onboard 6th generation fighters and Group 5 UAS “ said Brandon Tseng Shield AI cofounder and former Navy SEAL.

According to a joint press release from the companies, Heron and Shield AI will together “accelerate the deployment of advanced AI pilots to legacy and future military aircraft — an urgent and necessary step toward achieving national security priorities and remaining credible in the face of sophisticated peer countries.”

One of those next steps is the aforementioned Phase 2 of DARPA’s ACE program, which will expand the AI-driven dogfighting scenarios to include live subscale aircraft, both propeller-driven and jet-powered, to see just how those AI algorithms translate to live air combat scenarios. Then, under Phase 3, that same AI technology developed by Heron will be inserted in a full-scale L-39 jet trainer, as an onboard AI “pilot.” Earlier this year, we reported how Calspan had already begun work to modify an L-39 for this role, although at that time it had not been specified which company would be providing the AI itself.

While Phase 2 is scheduled to take place later this year, the Phase 3 dogfights should follow in late 2023 and 2024.

Heron’s AI technology first came to wider prominence in the air defense realm in August last year when the company’s software was used in DARPA’s AlphaDogfight trials, the result of which was a 5-to-0 win in simulated dogfights against an experienced U.S. Air Force F-16 pilot, and five other AI pilots. You can read more about that here.

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