AI Taking Flight in the U.S. Air Force
Over the last decade, the topic of self-driving cars has been a buzzword, not just in Silicon Valley, but also around the world. Tesla is already moving to a full self-driving mode, and Waymo is preparing for new driverless prototypes. As efforts to promote autonomous driving on the ground are in full swing, self-driving (or flying) capabilities in the sky are also scoring high.
On Dec 15, 2020, U-2, one of the Air Force’s oldest planes, became the first military aircraft to fly with artificial intelligence as its copilot. The copilot is named ARTUµ, the algorithm behind the AI – a reference to the droid copilot in the Star Wars film that handled other tasks while the pilot focused on flying. The training was focused on a simulated missile strike, where ARTUµ would look for enemy missile launchers and the pilot would detect the adversary aircraft.
The U.S. Air Force is also actively collaborating with companies to incorporate AI into their aviation systems. Last month, Lockheed Martin’s VISTA X-62A training aircraft flew 17 hours in a test flight. The plane had no real human or pilot onboard. This was the first time an aircraft utilized AI in a tactical approach.
Other uses of AI in the Air Force
AI is also proving to be useful in maintaining and scheduling aircraft crews. The Air Force–MIT AI Accelerator Program has introduced AI to help schedule crews for their C-17 aircraft – the military cargo aircraft that transports troops and oversized payloads globally.
Scheduling crews for C-17 was a huge pain point for the U.S. Air Force. By utilizing Tron’s AI-enabled plugin, the crew schedules are now automated. Integrated with a scheduling software, called Puckboard, the U.S. Air Force could schedule crews up to two weeks in advance. The software also accounted for schedule disruptions and effectively reassigned duties based on the schedule change.
The risk of autonomous weapons
AI has proven to be a worthy opponent in the past – playing chess, checkers, Shogi, and Go with its human opponents – and winning fair and square. AI will undoubtedly change the way wars happen. The risks associated can be dire – paving way for new forms of war that humankind has never seen before. Ukraine’s AI drones are opening doors to the creation of killer robots.
Any efforts to impose bans on military drones haven’t been successful. Almost decade-long United Nations talks in Geneva have proved to be ineffective as many countries including the United States and Russia are against the ban on AI drones. Part of the hesitation comes from the distrust for the rival countries in creating this sensitive technology ethically.
However, efforts are underway to create a global plan for the responsible use of artificial intelligence and autonomous weapons by militaries. On Feb 16, The United States launched an initiative seeking international consensus on the use of AI in military operations.
AI and military hardware
The U.S. Air Force is now testing the limits of AI in fighter jets – training AI to fight against human adversaries. In a performance test across seven AI, the results were relatively spotty. In some situations, the AI agent would perform well, but it also performed poorly in certain scenarios. Even with the varied results, the Air Force team thinks the testing is an opportunity for future innovative practices.
In 2022, the U.S. army started accepting high-tech combat goggles from Microsoft. The goggles utilized Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) that provided a “heads-up display” and aimed assistance for U.S. ground forces. The HoloLens technology also supported night vision. However, Congress recently declined the $400 million purchase for the 6,900 additional goggles. The goggle usage was also in question in the past as they did not sit well with the army soldiers, with many complaining of nausea and headaches from prolonged use.
Microsoft later introduced redesigns and came back with the IVAS 1.2 variant in 2023. This variant is expected to be more useful in the field.
Companies investing in AI for military use
Microsoft (MSFT) has been an active contributor to the U.S. Air Force's technological and IT needs. In 2020, the Microsoft Federal team was selected to manage the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) in a $950 million contract. The ABMS is expected to improve data processing, storage, and communications across all departments of the Air Force. The technology will also be integrated across other military branches – Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Space Force.
In the defense world, hypersonic weapons are a top-tier commodity. Analysts believe that hypersonic weapons are the most sought-after battlefield technology. Both China and Russia are increasingly investing in this disruptive technology, and U.S. efforts are also hefty. Quite recently, The U.S. Air Force successfully tested and concluded its scramjet-powered Hypersonic Airbreathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) missile. The U.S. Air Force expects to use the flight data for future hypersonic efforts.
Defense companies, such as Lockheed Martin (LMT), Raytheon Technologies (RTX), Northrop Grumman (NOC), and Boeing (BA) are all investing in AI and are expected to benefit from the high demand for hypersonics. Lockheed Martin is an early contender in the hypersonics space due to its collaboration in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's hypersonic weapons effort and the $928 million contract with the Air Force for developing the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon. The company’s next earnings announcement is expected on April 18, 2023. Analysts are forecasting the EPS for the quarter at $6.13. The reported EPS for the same quarter last year was $6.44.
In an effort to design efficient defense systems, IBM and Raytheon Technologies (RTX) have also joined hands to develop advanced artificial intelligence and quantum solutions for the aerospace, defense, and intelligence industries.
Artificial intelligence startups are also not far behind. Specializing in a range of artificial intelligence-driven data analytics and cybersecurity, BigBear.ai (BBAI) is a new entrant in the emerging AI space. The company recently won Air Force contracts with a combined value of $900 million which caused the stock to soar by 260%. The stock, however, has been down-trending due to selling pressure. Wall Street analysts predict the company will report better earnings and the stock could expect a ripe turnaround. BBAI is currently at $1.85 with a 1-year target of $4.50.
The future of the aviation industry lies in building robust technology that surpasses other rivals. Connected battlespaces that allow efficient communication and collaboration between all entities of the space industry will be crucial. Fortunately, AI bridges that gap with autonomous solutions that allow pilots and commanders to make faster and more informed decisions.
While the AI developments in the defense industry are certainly innovative, any disruptions such as political unrest and supply chain problems can have a ripple effect on the top-line growth and revenue.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.