AI-powered tactical aircraft completes series of flight tests

The Pentagon’s No. 1 weapons supplier, Lockheed Martin Corp. announced on Monday that the VISTA X-62A recently completed a series of flight tests, where the spacecraft was fully piloted by artificial intelligence (AI) for an incredible 17-plus hours.

VISTA, short for Variable In-flight Simulation Test Aircraft, is changing the face of air power at the US Air Force Test Pilot School (USAF TPS) at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

VISTA is a unique trainer aircraft developed by Lockheed Martin Skunk Works in collaboration with Calspan Corporation for the USAF TPS. Built on an open systems architecture, VISTA is equipped with software that allows it to mimic the performance characteristics of other aircraft.


“VISTA will allow us to compare the development and testing of state-of-the-art artificial intelligence techniques with new unmanned vehicle designs,” said Dr. M. Christopher Cotting, director of the US Air Force Test Pilot School. “This approach, combined with focused testing on new vehicle systems as they are produced, will rapidly mature autonomy for unmanned platforms and allow us to deliver tactically relevant capabilities to our warfighter.”

Recent US Air Force upgrades include the updated VISTA Simulation System (VSS) provided by Calspan, and Lockheed Martin’s Model Tracking Algorithm (MFA) and Autonomous Control Simulation System (SACS). The integrated SACS and MFA systems provide new capabilities to VISTA so that it can be used to conduct the most advanced flight test experiments with an emphasis on autonomy and AI.

The 17-hour-plus flight of the artificial intelligence agent took place as part of a series of tests in December.

VISTA is a modified F-16D Block 30 Peace Marble Il aircraft upgraded with Block 40 avionics. Previously designated NF-16D, in June 2021 VISTA was recognized by the US Air Force and declared a national asset with the formal designation VISTA X-62A.

This new mission system capability with VSS, MFA and SACS highlights advanced algorithm development and integration for autonomous aircraft. The heart of the SACS system is the Skunk Works Enterprise-wide Open Systems Architecture (E-OSA) running the Enterprise Mission Computer version 2 (EMC2) or “Einstein Box”.

Additional SACS components include the integration of advanced sensors, a Multi-Level Security solution and a set of Getac tablet screens in both cockpits. These components enhance VISTA’s capabilities while maintaining its rapid prototyping advantage, specifically enabling rapid software changes to increase the frequency of test flights and accelerate the pace of AI and autonomy development to meet pressing national security needs.

For decades, Lockheed Martin has applied and implemented reliable AI technologies to help its customers maximize performance, safety and situational awareness across all domains. Lockheed Martin’s implementations keep people in control while enabling them to be safer, more efficient and better able to focus on higher-level tasks by empowering them to make more informed decisions quickly.

VISTA will continue to serve a critical role in the rapid development of AI and autonomy capabilities for the US Air Force. He is currently undergoing a series of routine examinations. Flights will continue at Edwards Air Force Base throughout 2023.

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