HomeNewsArticle Display

Old dog teaches DOD new tricks: U-2 achieves first military flight with artificial intelligence

A U-2 pilot approaches a hangar to take flight in the first-ever military flight with artificial intelligence.

A U.S. Air Force U-2 Dragon Lady assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing prepares to land at Beale Air Force, California, Dec. 15, 2020. 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 Dept. 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. The flight was part of a specifically constructed scenario pitting the AI against another dynamic computer algorithm in order to prove both the new technology capability, and its ability to work in coordination with a human. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Luis A. Ruiz-Vazquez)

BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --

The U.S. Air Force flew artificial intelligence as a working aircrew member for the first time yesterday, signaling a major leap forward for national defense in the digital age.

The AI algorithm, developed by Air Combat Command’s U-2 Federal Laboratory, flew aboard a U-2 Dragon Lady assigned to Beale AFB, better known as Recce Town, USA. Developed by a small team of researchers led by Maj Ray Tierney, the algorithm trained the AI to execute specific in-flight tasks that would otherwise be accomplished by the pilot.

The test flight was the culmination 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. The flight was part of a specifically constructed scenario which pitted the AI against another dynamic computer algorithm in order to prove the new technology. The result demonstrated the pilot and AI successfully teamed to share the U-2’s sensor in order to achieve mission objectives against the dynamic algorithm. 

The Beale team designed this algorithm in response to a direct challenge from Dr. Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. Dr. Roper posed the challenge to Beale’s Federal Lab only two months ago, increasing the significance of the accomplishment. The lab executed Roper’s challenge with an AI design capable of application beyond the U-2 to further strengthen joint all-domain command and control across the entire DOD.

Col Heather Fox, 9th Reconnaissance Wing Commander, explained how the U-2 Federal Laboratory is only one part of Beale’s drive to innovate for the service and its joint partners:

“This is one of the many ways the 9th Reconnaissance Wing is innovating to take on the DoD’s toughest challenges. The U-2 is the perfect platform to drive cutting edge military technology that is easily transferred to other Air Force and Joint partners. I’m extremely proud of the forward-thinking accomplishments of Maj Tierney and this entire Federal Lab team. They’re making history today!”

Fox continued, stating the unique nature of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing and what it brings to the fight:

“Recce Town is unlike any other wing in the Air Force. The 9th Reconnaissance Wing provides formal training, maintains ready forces, all while continuously and simultaneously executing missions from multiple locations around the globe.”

The U-2 Federal Lab Laboratory organically designed this application of AI technology to be easily transferable to other major weapon systems and plans to further refine the technology. It 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 was developed by Recce Town Airmen to accelerate our nation’s National Defense Strategy, including edge development—a concept that integrates new software on operational systems in a bounded, safe environment. 

The U-2 Federal Laboratory was approved by the National Institute of Standards and Technology under the 20th Laboratory Accreditation Program in the federal government.

The historic AI flight comes just two months after the U-2 Federal Laboratory updated inflight software for the first time during a U-2 training mission. The team leveraged Kubernetes, an open source container orchestration system for automating computer application deployment, scaling, and management; another military first.

Edge technology is just one example of an emerging innovation culture at Recce Town. Utilizing its recently created and unique Wing A-Staff organization, the 9th Reconnaissance Wing is accelerating AI, advancing its “get anywhere on the globe logistics concept”, and rapidly integrating cyber capabilities across its missions—it’s all happening at Recce Town, USA.

Who says the old dog can’t develop new tricks for its Air Force and nation?