Calspan To Modify L-39s For DARPA AI Dogfighting Experiment

Calspan Corporation announced 8 July that it had been awarded a four year contract worth $14.1 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop full-scale air combat experimentation infrastructure for its Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program. 

Under the contract, Calspan Flight Research will modify up to four Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros flight trainers with Calspan’s proprietary autonomous fly-by-wire flight control system technology. The modified aircraft will be used to implement advanced human-machine interfaces as well as AI algorithms. Flight testing will be conducted from the Calspan Flight Research Facility at the Niagara Falls International Airport in New York state, with the tests proper being conducted in the Misty Military Operating Area over Lake Ontario. 

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory video of AlphaDogfight Trial 1, one of a series ot trials intended to drive AI development for Air Combat Evolution.

ACE intends to develop and measure human trust in autonomous combat technology, with “human-machine collaborative dogfighting” as its initial challenge scenario. DARPA hopes that lessons learned and technology refined in the program will give pilots confidence in artificial intelligence’s ability to handle a high-end fight, allowing future pilots to focus on the larger air battle. 

In response to the contract award, president of Calspan Corporation, Peter Sauer said: “Calspan is proud of our selection by DARPA to build an airborne air combat experimentation lab for the ACE program.”

Louis Knotts, owner and CEO of Calspan Corporation, added:

Since 1947, Calspan has been the world’s premier innovator, developer, and operator of in-flight simulators and UAV surrogates. This program presents an outstanding opportunity for Calspan to partner with DARPA for the use of our programmable flight control technology and provide them with a safe and flexible means to flight test these advanced algorithms.”

US Air Force Research laboratory video presentation on the Skyborg program.

The announcement comes after a recent US Air Force announcement of its plans for the Skyborg program, which aims to create a family of autonomous drones to fight alongside human pilots. The USAF intends to have a prototype ready in 2021, with an “loyal wingman” drone operational by 2023. Fittingly enough, the first of the Calspan contract’s three stages has already begun as of the announcement.