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Rise of the robots: AI in the airborne battlespace

The UK-led Tempest future combat aircraft will feature AI and autonomy at its core. These capabilities will extend to the platform's unmanned ‘loyal wingmen' and the wider Future Combat Air System. (BAE Systems)

The combat aircraft on today's drawing boards are being designed with artificial intelligence (AI) and/or autonomy at the core of their capabilities, and the UK-led Tempest programme is at the forefront of this global trend.

As defined by the UK's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), AI encompasses the theories and techniques that enable computer systems to perform tasks normally requiring human or biological intelligence. Autonomy is the characteristic of a system using AI to determine its own course of action by making its own decisions, while autonomous systems contain AI-based components that enable them to exhibit autonomy.

Some of the leaders in the UK's efforts around AI and autonomy came together in June 2021 at the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) in London to discuss the subject that is in its infancy, as well as the varied technological and ethical issues that surround it.

“We are still in the foothills of understanding exactly what AI, particularly in the weapons domain but also across defence, is really going to mean to us in the future,” Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff Force Development at Royal Air Force (RAF) Air Command, Group Captain Gareth Prendergast, said at the RAeS's ‘Artificial Intelligence in the Weapons Domain' conference.

A former Panavia Tornado GR4 weapon systems officer, Gp Capt

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