Air Force fighter pilot to take on artificial intelligence team in simulated dogfight

Students and an instructor pilot with the 23rd Flying Training Squadron take part in a virtual reality sortie during training at Fort Rucker, Ala., Oct. 9, 2019.


By JAMES BOLINGER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 13, 2020

The Air Force will pit an experienced F-16 fighter pilot in a toe-to-toe virtual reality dogfight for the first time against artificial intelligence as part of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency event on Thursday.

The AlphaDogFight Trials consists of three days of cyberspace competition, during which eight AI teams will determine which of their programs will face the human pilot, a DARPA statement said. The event will be livestreamed, with commentary from agency officials.

“We are still excited to see how the AI algorithms perform against each other as well as a Weapons School-trained human and hope that fighter pilots from across the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, as well as military leaders and members of the AI tech community will register and watch online,” Col. Dan Javorsek, program manager in DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office, said in the statement.

During the trials, the audience will see dogfights in real time and hear experts and guests from the Control Zone, akin to a TV sports commentary desk.

The competition is like an aerial dogfighting video game in which one player is a human and the other is an AI agent, Col. Dan Javorsek, program manager in DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office, said Wednesday in an email to Stars and Stripes. The human pilot will sit in an F-16 simulator wearing virtual reality goggles to provide a realistic cockpit view for the engagement.

They will face off in a series of dogfights with variable starting conditions to ensure an even contest, Javorsek said. Each aircraft will start with a full set of health points.

During the dogfight, the pilots maneuver to place their weapons zone on the opponent’s aircraft, reducing health points. The engagement ends when either one aircraft is out of health points or time expires.

The first day of the competition will feature each of the eight teams flying their algorithms against five adversary AI algorithms developed by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, the statement said.

On the second day, the teams will fly against one another in a round-robin tournament before competing in a single elimination tournament on day three. The eventual champion will face the human F-16 pilot.

AlphaDogFight Trials was supposed to take place before a live audience at AFWERX, a research and development program at Las Vegas, with fighter pilots from the Air Forces Weapons School at nearby Nellis Air Force Base taking part.

However, the coronavirus pandemic forced the event online and all three days will instead be livestreamed on multiple channels as a ZoomGov webinar from the Johns Hopkins laboratory in Laurel, Md., where the pilot will be participating.

Anyone can watch the webinar if they register before the Monday deadline, Javorsek said.

The goal of the competition is to demonstrate advanced AI algorithms capable of performing “simulated within-visual-range air combat maneuvering,” or dogfighting, the statement said.

The agency is looking for AI technology that can collaborate with humans, according to a DARPA website dedicated to its Air Combat Evolution program. Setting a dogfight as a problem challenges the designers to produce something that can be trusted to work on its own in combat. Dogfighting is also an “entry point” into the world of complex human-machine collaboration.

Prime viewing is scheduled 1:30-3:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Thursday, with remarks from Javorsek and other DARPA officials, recaps of the previous days’ activities and scores, and the final human versus AI dogfight.

“Regardless of whether the human or machine wins the final dogfight, the AlphaDogfight Trials is all about increasing trust in AI,” Javorsek said in the statement. “If the champion AI earns the respect of an F-16 pilot, we’ll have come one step closer to achieving effective human-machine teaming in air combat, which is the goal of the ACE program.”

Twitter: @bolingerj2004

An F-16 from the 480th Fighter Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, prepares to land after participating in a mock dogfight near Campia Turzii, Romania, March 17, 2015.