For Bill Gray, chief test pilot at the USAF Test Pilot School, incorporating AI is a natural extension of the work he does with human students. “Whenever we [pilots] talk to engineers and scientists about the difficulties of training and qualifying AI agents, they typically treat this as a new problem,” he says. “This bothers me, because I have been training and qualifying highly non-linear and unpredictable natural intelligence agents—students—for decades. For me, the question isn’t, ‘Can we train and qualify AI agents?’ It’s, ‘Why can we train and qualify humans, and what can this teach us about doing the same for AI agents?’
Gray believes AI is “not a wonder tool that can solve all of the problems,” but rather that it must be developed in a balanced approach, with built-in safety measures to prevent costly mishaps. An overreliance on AI—a “trust in autonomy”—can be dangerous, Gray believes, pointing out failures in Tesla’s autopilot program despite Tesla asserting the need for the driver to be at the wheel as a backup. Cotting agrees, calling the ability to test AI programs in the VISTA a “risk-reduction plan.” By training AI on conventional systems such as the VISTA X-62—rather than building an entirely new aircraft—automatic limits and, if necessary, safety pilot intervention can help prevent the AI from endangering the aircraft as it learns.
The USAF’s technology is advancing rapidly. This past December, trial flights for ACE and ACCO were often completed within hours of each other, with engineers switching autonomy algorithms onboard the VISTA in minutes, without safety or performance issues, according to Cotting. In one instance, Cotting describes uploading new AI at 7:30 am and the plane being ready to test by 10 am.
“Once you get through the process of connecting an AI to a supersonic fighter, the resulting maneuvering is endlessly fascinating,” says Gray. “We have seen things that make sense, and completely surprising things that make no sense at all. Thanks to our safety systems, programmers are changing their models overnight, and we’re engaging them the next morning. This is unheard of in flight control system development, much less experimentation with unpredictable AI agents.”
Despite these successes, it will take some time before the curriculum at the USAF Test Pilot School undergoes an AI overhaul. Cotting explains that the newness of the AACO and ACE platforms means students will require a greater level of understanding before trying them out in the cockpit of the VISTA. “We’re basically building the bridge as we’re driving over,” Cotting says.
In the meantime, students will undergo a broader test this fall in which they’re exposed to a set of AI and have to figure out how to test it, then execute that test.
As for wider military applications, Cotting says that while he has no visibility into these areas, AI is already ubiquitous in image recognition technology used across the military. While AI-driven tanks may not be on the horizon just yet, the skies, it seems, are set to be home to a new kind of intelligence.