Heron Systems Inc. took first place in the third and final competition in DARPA’s AlphaDogfight trials (ADT) on Aug 20 between artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled F-16 simulators and U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps pilots.

Founded in 1993, Heron is a small AI firm located near Patuxent Naval Air Station, Md.

To win the final round, Heron’s AI agent, “Falco,” took out in five separate dogfights an F-16 simulator helmed by “Banger,” an elite F-16 pilot, a graduate of the Weapons Instructor Course (WIC) at the U.S. Air Force Weapons School at Nellis AFB, Nev.

Heron also beat out Lockheed Martin

[LMT], which took second place, and six other companies. Heron’s performance was dominant, as it frequently was able to gain first shot, high aspect basic fighter maneuver (HABFM) gun kills at 3,000 feet or less against rivals.

ADT has been a year-long risk reduction effort for DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program, which aims to increase fighter pilots’ and others’ trust in combat autonomy by using human-machine collaborative dogfighting and to make advances in complex human-machine collaboration.

“What we’re seeing today is the beginning of something I’m going to call ‘human-machine symbiosis,'” said Timothy Grayson, the director of DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office (STO). “Let’s let the AI do the really detailed level technical things, and let’s let the human work the more cognitive [battle management] kinds of problems. I believe we are seeing the beginning of a trend in that direction, not just for dogfighting, not just for tactical aircraft, not even just for military programs, but where we can start seeing a future where in all human endeavors, we might see the AI work those very highly technical types of skills that get in the way of teaching humans some new endeavor or activity.”

While AI is adept at solving complicated, “closed world” technical problems, AI is still “a long way off” in being able to work higher level, cognitive, and intuitive battle management and strategic decision making problems, he said.

“Imagine being able to take a really skilled fighter pilot who can move from aircraft to aircraft without having to go through laborious training and re-certification every time because AI is doing the hard part of how to actually control the aircraft and do the tactical maneuvers, and that intuitive battle management skill that the pilot has can then transfer from system to system,” Grayson said. “That’s key to what we’re trying to do and what in STO we call ‘mosaic warfare,’ where we’re trying to say how can we compose an adaptable kill chain with whatever’s available in the battlespace.”

The ADT finals were to occur at AFWERX headquarters in Las Vegas in Las Vegas with fighter pilots from the Air Force Weapons School at Nellis AFB, Nev., until COVID-19 made the virtual competition necessary, said Air Force Col. Dan “Animal” Javorsek, the ACE program manager of Air Combat Evolution in DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office.

The Air Force picked eight teams to compete last year to show advanced AI algorithms to permit autonomous F-16 dogfighting.

The first trial used F-15 simulators, while the second and third used F-16 simulators.

Beside Heron and Lockheed Martin, the teams competing were Boeing‘s [BA] Aurora Flight Sciences, which finished third, PhysicsAI, which finished fourth, fifth place SoarTech, sixth place Georgia Tech Research Institute, seventh place EpiSys Science, Inc., and Perspecta Labs [PRSP].

The first two trials were held at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory last November and January.

On Aug. 18, the teams “flew” their algorithms against five APL-developed AI algorithms, while on Aug. 19 the teams competed against one another before the Aug. 20 finale.

“The F-16’s first flight was in 1974–all electric, all digital, fly-by-wire jet–revolutionary at the time,” said Javorsek, a former F-16 pilot. “One of the pieces we start to realize is that it wasn’t technology that prevented and made it take 40 years for that technology to make it onto the jet. There’s a huge cultural element. Just like the horse-mounted cavalry, where horsemanship was at the core of those values, their dignity and their heritage, there are a lot of elements of this autonomy that are threatening those same things for this community.”

No money apparently went to the winner of ADT. Instead, Heron Systems was to take home Javorsek’s F-16 helmet as a prize.