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Manned Fighter to Face Autonomous Drone Next Year in Movie-Like Showdown


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combat aircraft, illustration

U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Jack Shanahan suggested the drone vs. manned aircraft face-off was an aspirational goal.

Credit: Air Force Technology

The U.S. Air Force is hoping to pit an autonomous drone equipped with an artificial intelligence-driven flight control system against a fighter jet with a human pilot in a little over a year. The effort could revolutionize air-to-air combat in ways that have so far been limited to the realm of fiction.

Air Force Lieutenant General Jack Shanahan, head of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), said that the Air Force had set the goal of holding the faceoff in July 2021. The Pentagon established the JAIC in 2018 to serve as a central point of focus for AI developments and related activities across the U.S. military.

The concept of a fully-autonomous unmanned combat air vehicle holds great potential to fundamentally change the character of aerial warfare. The drones themselves would be freed from parameters required to accommodate and protect a human pilot. Their planforms could be better optimized for aerial maneuvering and the pilotless aircraft could handle greater stresses during more aggressive flying that would be deemed too dangerous with a person inside.

The drones would likely be cheaper to build and maintain than manned fighter jets, and may be networked together into swarms for certain missions.

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