The much hated U-2 Dragon Lady reconnaissance plane gets an AI co-pilot

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

U-2 Dragon Lady reconnaissance plane, probably the world’s most hated but admired aircraft (or loved depending on which side you are on with the United States), has now flown with an Artificial Intelligence co-pilot. On December 15, the US Air Force (USAF) revealed that it used AI on a military aircraft for the first time ever during a training flight this week, via a press release. The system’s main responsibility was identifying enemy missile launchers.  

The AI algorithm was also used to control the sensor and navigation systems of the vintage 1950’s designed U-2 Dragon Lady reconnaissance plane during a training flight at Beale Air Force Base in California. The U-2 spy plane used during the test is from the 9th Reconnaissance Wing of the USAF. The U-2 is a single-jet engine, high-altitude craft that provides all-weather intelligence gathering. The release names the AI system as ‘ARTUµ’ and it was trained for sensor employment and tactical navigation.  

“This flight marks a major leap forward for national defense as artificial intelligence took flight aboard a military aircraft for the first time in the history of the Department of Defense. The AI algorithm, developed by Air Combat Command’s U-2 Federal Laboratory, trained the AI to execute specific in-flight tasks that would otherwise be done by the pilot,” says the USAF release.  

The test had two components which included pitting the AI ARTUµ against another dynamic computer algorithm in order to prove both the new technologies and their ability to work in coordination with a human. “The plane was still steered by the pilot, and no weapons were involved. However, after takeoff, sensor control was handled by ARTUµ, which had learned how to achieve sensor objectives from over a half-million computer-simulated training iterations,” states the release.

AI ARTUµ is based on an open-source computer gaming program μZero developed by the Alphabet’s AI research company DeepMind. Alphabet is the parent company of Google. Alphabet has long disassociated with the Defense Department initiative Project Maven (Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Function Team) due to the resistance by the employees. Project Maven is a Pentagon program to build an AI-powered surveillance platform for unmanned aerial vehicles.

The U-2 spy plane AI test also employed the open-source container-orchestration software Kubernetes which is already deployed on some of the USAF F-16 fighter aircraft. Kubernetes, also known as K8s, was originally designed by Google and is now maintained by the Cloud Native Computing Foundation.  

The U-2 spy plane is of a vintage era but not a vintage aircraft as it was a design much ahead of its time. The Lockheed Martin Skunk Works had designed U-2 with a modular approach and over the years has modernized the multi-role aircraft with long-range standoff sensors and onboard processing.

The test is a result of the US National Defense Strategy’s aim to invest in autonomous systems, as per secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett.


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