U-2 spy plane flies with AI co-pilot for the first time

A Lockheed U-2S Dragon Lady – one of the oldest platforms in the US Air Force’s (USAF’s) inventory – became the first US military aircraft to fly with an artificial intelligence (AI) co-pilot on December 15.

The U-2S, assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing (RW) at Beale Air Force Base (AFB), California, successfully completed a test flight equipped with an AI algorithm under the control of USAF pilot, Maj “Vudu”. Developed by Air Combat Command’s U-2 Federal Laboratory, the algorithm – known as ARTUμ – was named in reference to the fan-favourite droid, R2-D2, from the Star Wars franchise. The system is designed to completed specific in-flight tasks that would otherwise have been completed by the pilot.

U-2S and ARTUμ [USAF/Airman 1st Class Luis A Ruiz-Vazquez]
A Lockheed U-2S Dragon Lady high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing (RW), prepares to touch down at Beale AFB, California, on December 15, 2020. On the same day, the famed spy plane became the first US military aircraft to fly with an artificial intelligence (AI) co-pilot aboard. USAF/Airman 1st Class Luis A Ruiz-Vazquez

During the test flight, ARTUμ took control of the U-2’s sensors and tactical navigation systems, leaving Maj “Vudu” to fly the aircraft and coordinate with the AI on sensor operation. The Dragon Lady flew a reconnaissance mission during a simulated missile strike, in which ARTUμ was responsible for locating enemy launchers, while the pilot looked out for threatening aircraft. Both the human pilot and AI co-pilot shared the U-2’s radar throughout the test sortie.

Dr Will Roper, the assistant secretary of the USAF for acquisition, technology and logistics, said: “ARTUμ’s ground-breaking flight culminates our three-year journey to becoming a digital force. Putting AI safely in command of a US military system for the first time ushers in a new age of human-machine teaming and algorithmic competition. Failing to realise AI’s full potential will mean ceding decision advantage to our adversaries.”

The USAF adds that the test flight “was part of a precisely constructed scenario, which pitted the AI against another dynamic computer algorithm in order to prove the new technology.” It explained that control of the U-2’s sensors was handed over to ARTUμ after take-off, which then used insight gained from more than half-a-million computer simulated training missions to manipulate the sensors in-flight. Maj “Vudu” and ARTUμ successfully teamed-up during the demonstration to share the Dragon Lady’s sensors and all mission objectives were achieved, the service concluded.

U-2S and ARTUμ [USAF/Airman 1st Class Luis A Ruiz-Vazquez]
Maj "Vudu" - a USAF U-2S Dragon Lady pilot assigned to the 9th RW - taxis by after returning from a training sortie on December 15, 2020. USAF/Airman 1st Class Luis A Ruiz-Vazquez

USAF Chief of Staff, Gen Charles Q Brown Jr, praised the milestone in a press release. He 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. 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 though was possible.”

The U-2 Federal Laboratory designed this AI algorithm so that it is easily transferrable to other systems and plans to further refine the technology going forward. The December 15 test flight “provided invaluable data for not only the team to learn from, but also ARTUμ,” the USAF concluded. This flight comes just two months after the laboratory leveraged the open-source Kubernetes system to update in-flight software during a U-2 training mission for the first time – another military first.