Shield AI, a developer of artificial intelligence (AI) technology for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), has acquired Heron Systems Inc., which has developed AI software for fighter aircraft, a deal the companies say will accelerate the use of AI pilots on military aircraft.

Terms of the acquisition were not disclosed. Shield AI, which is based in San Diego, has just over 200 employees and Heron, which is based in Patuxent Naval Air Station in Maryland, has about 40 employees.

Heron last summer won the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s final round of the AlphaDogfight trials that involved an AI pilot in an F-16 fighter simulator defeating actual Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps pilots that also used F-16 simulators in dogfights (Defense Daily, Aug. 20, 2020).

Heron’s work with large fighter jets, as opposed to Shield AI’s work with small UAS, will give Shield AI the chance to work on large aircraft, a company spokesman told Defense Daily, adding that the Defense Department is looking at the next-generation of fighters being unmanned or optionally manned.

“Truly special AI companies are incredibly rare assets in the defense market,” Ryan Tseng, co-founder and CEO of Shield AI, said in a statement. “Heron has developed the most advanced AI-pilot for fighter aircraft in the United States. With China already showing comparable results, operationalizing Heron’s work for programs such as Next Generation Air Dominance must be a national security priority.”

Heron said its acquisition by a larger company will advance its goals of operationalizing its technology.

“Shield AI enables us the opportunity and scale to accelerate the integration of our AI-pilot on a next-generation fighter and UAS,” Brett Darcey, general manager of Heron, said in a statement. “What stood out about Shield AI for us is that they’re really the ones who have an operational AI pilot that can operate on the edge without GPS or comms, and this has been proven in combat operations.”

Shield AI says its Hivemind software “enables autonomous navigation and intelligent teaming, equipping unmanned systems to read and react to their environment and successfully complete all tasks autonomously on the edge.”

The company also offers a small quadcopter UAS equipped with Hivemind, called Nova 2, that can carry payloads on top and below the air vehicle. Nova 2 operates in GPS-denied environments and autonomously, day and night.

Shield AI said that Heron will operate as a wholly owned division.