The Air Force's New AI Is Like R2-D2 for Fighter Jets

The U.S. military wants to put artificial intelligence in the cockpit, as an assistant or AI-powered wingman.

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The Pentagon is building a pilot's little helper.

A new AI under development, called Skyborg, would act either as a robotic co-pilot or drone wingman, performing important tasks while the human pilot flies and fights the aircraft. Will Roper, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, says the Air Force Research Lab is currently building a “completely game-changing” technology.

, Roper compared Skyborg to R2-D2 of Star Wars fame, Luke Skywalker’s trusty droid that in a X-Wing fighter. In the movies, Luke can issue voice commands to R2-D2, asking the droid for navigation info or to repair the starfighter while he flies.

USS Constellation Patrols Persian Gulf
Skyborg could take over roles originally handled by co-pilots on aircraft such as the F-14 Tomcat, allowing the pilot to concentrate on flying.
Scott NelsonGetty Images

In the real world, Skyborg would consist of two systems. The first is an R2-D2-style AI that would ride in a manned fighter as a co-pilot. Like Luke Skywalker, the Air Force pilot of the near future could interact with the AI via voice commands. AIs also could perform tasks for pilots in single-seat jets that were traditionally reserved for co-pilots, such as radar operation and target identification, navigation, and increased situational awareness.

One particular task Roper has in mind for Skyborg is target recognition—taking sensor data and attempting to identify nearby aircraft, including hostile ones. Such a task mirrors what , the second crew members manning the F-14 Tomcat, performed in the iconic two-seat fighter jet.

The second system is an AI that would fly an unmanned vehicle, such as Boeing’s Loyal Wingman or Kratos Defense’s XQ-58A Valkyrie. According to C4ISRNET, such a system might even go into the QF-16 drone. A decommissioned F-16 reconfigured for unmanned flight, the QF-16 currently serves as a target drone. But, powered by a sophisticated AI, it theoretically could become an inexpensive, expendable combat drone that carries its own weapons.

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A QF-16 Full Scale Aerial Target. The QF-16 is optionally manned, with a pilot visible in this aircraft’s cockpit.
U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Perry Aston

In either of Skyborg's possible roles, the Air Force insists, the emphasis is not on creating a system that can replace pilots (and bring up all the thorny ethical questions involving AIs in combat) but a system that enhances the effectiveness of human pilots, allowing them to manage more tasks in an increasingly complex combat environment. This could help ensure that humans are in the loop when it comes time to release weapons and possibly kill or injure other humans. The emphasis on using AI and autonomous systems to enhance rather than replicate human performance is probably the best way forward for a technology that has spawned concerns that robots could roam battlefields, “Terminator”-style, killing humans without oversight.

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