Maverick’s days are numbered. The long-awaited sequel to Top Gun is due to hit cinemas in December, but the virtuoso fighter pilots at its heart could soon be a thing of the past. The trustworthy wingman will soon be replaced by artificial intelligence, built into a drone, or an existing fighter jet with no one in the cockpit.
Since 2010, the US Air Force and Boeing’s QF-16 programme has been converting old F-16 fighter jets into unmanned drones, which can fly preset routes without a pilot. This year, 32 of these autonomous planes – rescued from retirement in the “boneyard” at an Air Force base near Arizona – will be used as targets in weapons testing over the Gulf of Mexico.
At Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, an F-16 undergoes the final stages of its transformation into a QF-16 unmanned drone – including an orange paint job to alert other (human) pilots
In the future, self-flying fighter jets such as these could transform aerial combat. The Air Force’s Skyborg programme, which could be in operation as soon as 2023, is developing AI systems for its unmanned Valkyrie drones which would enable them to communicate with and operate in tandem with a manned F-35 jet.
QF-16s could be used, for example, to fly decoy routes to distract from a manned aircraft operating in stealth mode. Will Roper, who oversees the Air Force’s research and development arm, has likened the project to R2-D2, the lovable robot from the Star Wars movies who serves as a sort of co-pilot to Luke Skywalker on occasions.
QF-16s are powered by an afterburning turbofan, which is capable of generating supersonic speeds. They could be more manoeuvrable than manned aircraft, which are limited by the level of G-force a pilot can withstand
The original F-16, which came into service in the 1970s, was one of the first aircraft to have an on-board computer to help the pilot. Today, fighter jets are so sensitive and powerful that it’s essentially impossible for them to be flown without some sort of computer assistance, according to Steve Wright, an associate professor in aerospace engineering at the University of the West of England. “The pilot is now performing guidance and navigation,” he says. “The control system has been replaced already.”
The cockpit of a QF-16 is nearly identical to the F-16 – but without a pilot, it no longer needs seat-back cushions, belts and straps
Eventually, Wright thinks it’s inevitable that AI systems will be able to outperform and outmanoeuvre real pilots – planes equipped with an AI will be able to make twists and turns that would be impossible for a human because of the G-force involved. Not having a person in the cockpit will free up engineers to make planes that look radically different, Wright says – we’ve already seen the beginnings of this in the streamlined shape of some autonomous drones. And, if there’s no human involved, they can be a lot cheaper too, because you don’t have to build in many of the safety systems and redundancies required to keep a pilot safe.
But there are ethical questions to unpick – particularly if these autonomous drones are equipped with weapons that can fire without human intervention. “We’ve got the capability,” says Wright. “Do we have the stomach?”
A panel on the side of the QF-16 reveals the additional equipment required to enable the aircraft to be piloted remotely
Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala
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