Artoo, take the wheel: U-2 spy plane flies for the first time with an AI co-pilot
In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star with the adorable, wisecracking droid named R2-D2 in the back of his X-wing, helping navigate and fix the ship in real time.
Now, the U.S. Air Force has its own Artoo — called, well, Artuμ — an artificial intelligence system that flew onboard a Lockheed Martin U-2 for the first time Dec. 15 and was given control of the spy plane’s radar and sensor systems.
On a reconnaissance training mission conducted out of Beale Air Force Base in California, Artuµ was tasked with finding adversarial missile launchers during a simulated missile strike, and it was solely responsible for sensor employment and tactical navigation after takeoff, the Air Force said in a news release.
The human U-2 pilot, referred only by the callsign “Vudu” for security reasons, concentrated on finding enemy aircraft and shared the use of the radar with the AI co-pilot.
“Like any pilot, Artuμ (even the real R2-D2) has strengths and weaknesses,” Air Force acquisition executive Will Roper tweeted in an announcement of the news. “Understanding them to prep both humans and AI for a new era of algorithmic warfare is our next imperative step. We either become sci-fi or become history.”
Artuµ was created by the U-2 Federal Laboratory, which in October successfully updated the plane′s software while it was flying — a first for the U.S. military. The event was made possible by deploying Kubernetes, an open-source, containerized method for automating software updates.
Artuμ is based on a gaming algorithm known as µZero, which has been used to beat human players in chess and Go, Roper explained in an op-ed on Popular Mechanics. The U-2 lab specially trained the AI co-pilot to manipulate the U-2′s sensor suite during “over half a million” computer-simulated missions, according to the Air Force.
“With no pilot override, ARTUµ made final calls on devoting the radar to missile hunting versus self-protection,” Roper wrote.
Although Artuµ was developed to take away from the pilot’s workload in a U-2, it can be modified for use by other combat planes, the service said.
“We know that in order to fight and win in a future conflict with a peer adversary, we must have a decisive digital advantage,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown said in a statement. “AI will play a critical role in achieving that edge, so I’m incredibly proud of what the team accomplished. We must accelerate change and that only happens when our Airmen push the limits of what we thought was possible.”