AI Copilot on U-2 Dragon Lady
December 16, 2020
Signaling a major leap forward
for national defense in the digital age, the Air Force flew with
artificial intelligence as a working aircrew member onboard a military
aircraft for the first time Dec. 15.
The AI algorithm, known as ARTUµ, flew with the pilot, U.S. Air Force
Maj. “Vudu”, on a U-2 Dragon Lady assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance
Wing at Beale Air Force Base. Air Combat Command’s U-2 Federal
Laboratory researchers developed ARTUµ and trained it to execute
specific in-flight tasks that otherwise would be done by the pilot.
The test flight was the result of years of concerted effort within the
Air Force to apply cutting-edge technology to military operations as it
competes with other world powers in the digital age.
“ARTUµ’s groundbreaking flight culminates our three-year journey to
becoming a digital force,” said Dr. William Roper, assistant secretary
of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics. “Putting AI
safely in command of a U.S. military system for the first time ushers in
a new age of human-machine teaming and algorithmic competition. Failing
to realize AI’s full potential will mean ceding decision advantage to
During this flight, ARTUµ was responsible for sensor employment and
tactical navigation, while the pilot flew the aircraft and coordinated
with the AI on sensor operation. Together, they flew a reconnaissance
mission during a simulated missile strike. ARTUµ’s primary
responsibility was finding enemy launchers while the pilot was on the
lookout for threatening aircraft, both sharing the U-2’s radar.
The flight was part of a precisely constructed scenario which pitted the
AI against another dynamic computer algorithm in order to prove the new
“We know that in order to fight and win in a future conflict with a peer
adversary, we must have a decisive digital advantage,” said Air Force
Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. “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 thought was possible.”
After takeoff, the sensor control was positively handed-off to ARTUµ who
then manipulated the sensor, based on insight previously learned from
over a half-million computer simulated training iterations. The pilot
and AI successfully teamed to share the sensor and achieve the mission
The U-2 Federal Laboratory designed this AI technology to be easily
transferable to other systems and plan to further refine the technology.
Today’s flight provided invaluable data for not only the team to learn
from, but also ARTUµ.
expertise of a pilot with capabilities of machine learning, this
historic flight directly answers the National Defense Strategy’s call to
invest in autonomous systems,” said Secretary of the Air Force Barbara
Barrett. “Innovations in artificial intelligence will transform both the
air and space domains.”
The U-2 Federal Laboratory is a 15 U.S.C. compliant organization
established to bring together a “confluence of warfighter, developer,
and acquirer” vertically-integrated under the same operational roof. The
lab has developed and been approved by the National Institute of
Standards and Technology to establish the 20th Laboratory Accreditation
Program in the federal government. It promotes “edge development” – a
concept to develop new software integration on operational systems in a
bounded, safe environment.
The historic flight with AI comes just two months after the U-2 Federal
Laboratory team updated inflight software for the first time during a
U-2 training mission. The team leveraged the open-source
container-orchestration software Kubernetes, another military first.