World’s first air combat between a real and an AI-controlled fighters planes

By embedding an augmented reality helmet in the cockpit, a pilot was able to conduct a real aerial combat with a virtual projection of a Chinese J-20 fighter.

In the world of military aviation, this is called a "Dogfight", a whirling air combat between fighter planes. Except that in this case, an artificial intelligence is at the controls of one of the two aircraft. After virtual experiments on a simulator, during which the AI had won an unstoppable victory, this time it is a mixture of virtuality and reality that was used for this fight. This hybrid experiment was conducted by the American companies Red 6 and EpiSci, at Camarillo airport in California (USA).

It featured a real plane, the Berkut 500. Far from being a fighter plane, it is what is known as a "duck" plane, a small plane propelled by a propeller engine placed at the rear. While the main swept wing is also at the rear, the duck planes are presented by two small wings at the front of the plane. This architecture allows it to reproduce the maneuverability of a fighter plane.

The other plane involved, a Chinese stealth fighter J-20… did not exist! It was simulated and projected in augmented reality (AR) on a special visor mounted on the Berkut 500 pilot's helmet. Developed by the Red 6 company, the technology is called Atars, for "Airborne Tactical Augmented Reality System". The system works in concert with the aircraft's onboard instrumentation and interacts with the reality of the cockpit.

Ideal for reducing training costs

To achieve a good virtual representation in augmented reality in mid-flight, this requires that the technology is perfectly integrated into the cabin and that the aircraft's internal and external sensors fluidly provide the data to be processed in real time. No inertia is allowed while the aircraft is in flight. History does not say who, man or machine, will win, but the main aim of the experiment was to test the capabilities of augmented reality in real conditions. To achieve this, EpiSci built on its previous work as part of the Alpha Dogfight program of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). A RA program that was limited to flight simulators only.

This technology could allow fighter pilots to train for combat in real-world conditions, with all the thrills and spills without the need for two aircraft. The bill is therefore at least halved, and above all, AI and augmented reality make it possible to simulate real foreign fighters with their particularities and tactics. Similarly, it is possible to represent vehicles and ground facilities to enrich scenarios. In addition to combat, the equipment could just as easily facilitate pilot training on tightly-formed multi-aircraft flight configurations without fear of collisions, and with a definite economic benefit.

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