AFRL Investigating Wide Variety of Use Cases for AI

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Modernization is one of the U.S. Air Force’s top priorities, and USAF leaders have highlighted artificial intelligence as a major part of the service branch’s transformation efforts. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin expects the future to “be about human machine teaming,” and Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall recently said AI tools are necessary to carry out tasks that can be tedious for human operators.

At the Potomac Officers Club’s 2024 Air Force Summit in July, you will have the opportunity to hear from key leaders from the public and private sectors who will gather to discuss a variety of Air Force priorities. During last year’s iteration of the event, Kendall delivered a keynote address in which he discussed contested logistics. To learn more and register to attend the summit, click here.

The Air Force is currently exploring the potential of AI across numerous use cases, and the Air Force Research Laboratory is a major player in these endeavors. Keep reading to learn about three areas in which the AFRL is experimenting with this technology.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

In August, the Air Force Research Laboratory successfully tested machine-learning trained AI algorithms on the XQ-58A Valkyrie, an unmanned combat aircraft developed by Kratos Defense and Security Solutions. The algorithms were created by the AFRL’s Autonomous Air Combat Operations team and assessed during a three-hour sortie at the Eglin Test and Training Complex in Florida. The test, said Col. Tucker Hamilton, chief of AI test and operations for the Department of the Air Force, “proved out a multi-layer safety framework on an AI/ML-flown uncrewed aircraft and demonstrated an AI/ML agent solving a tactically relevant ‘challenge problem’ during airborne operations.”

Logistics

Logistics are a crucial part of mission success. To better understand how AI can improve USAF logistics activities, the AFRL conducted an online competition to enhance algorithms used in airlift operations, which can be negatively impacted by changing conditions like bad weather and other sudden events. Airlift activities are already complex, requiring operators to consider characteristics such as airplane speed, carrying capacity and airport maximum-on-ground.

During the AFRL’s Airlift Challenge, which took place in January 2023, participants developed novel AI algorithms designed to ensure efficient, on-time deliveries. In the virtual test, these algorithms were responsible for leading four airplanes across a cargo pickup and delivery network.

Manufacturing

According to Sean Donegan, digital manufacturing research team lead within the AFRL’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, there is “an immediate need to obtain customized forged components that we might only require a few of, but which have significant lead times.”

The Air Force is looking at AI as a way to accelerate the manufacturing process and meet these demands. In a January 2023 demonstration at the Warner-Robins Air Logistics Complex, researchers from the AFRL as well as partners from The Ohio State University, CapSen Robotics and Yaskawa Motoman showcased an autonomous robotic incremental metal forming prototype. This technology is intended to help bolster aircraft readiness and is expected to affect the future of metamorphic manufacturing.

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