How AI and Augmented reality are powering the fighter jet of the future

Health and Science Correspondent Martin Stew was given access to trial the equipment used in the design of the newest RAF fighter jet

In 1986, mobile phones were bricks and home PCs were run on floppy disks. It’s also the year that design started on Typhoon - the jet fighter which is still the workhorse of the Royal Air Force (RAF).

Whilst Typhoon has evolved, technology has changed and so have international threats.

So, how do you design a new stealth fighter jet which will see us through most of the rest of this century?

That’s the challenge designers from BAE Systems, based in Preston, are working on. They’re designing Typhoon’s replacement, called Tempest, which should be ready by 2035.

I was given exclusive access to try some of the new kit they're testing.

“This aircraft will be in service for 50 years," Paul Wilde, Head of Tempest, BAE Systems told me.

“Therefore it still needs to be able to keep up with the technologies that haven't even been invented yet. So things like artificial intelligence, machine learning, they're all things that will be fundamental to it developing and evolving through its life.”

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Tempest will be as much a super computer as a super sonic jet. The pilot no longer a ‘bus driver’, but a conductor of an orchestra, controlling not just their plane, but a suite of drones operated by the same system. 

For legal and tactical reasons the RAF still wants to have manned aircraft in the skies. The technology is so advanced and quantities of data so great that designers are having to learn how not to overload pilots.

Some of the help can be found from computer games.

Graduate apprentice Tilly Watts showed me how ‘haptic’ vests are being trialled to send warning vibrations to pilots if they need to be alerted to a threat.

The cockpit is also being redesigned to use augmented reality, where graphics are mapped directly onto the landscape like a virtual reality sat nav.

Tempest is a joint venture sharing costs and expertise with Japan and Italy.

Predecessor Typhoon was criticised for being slow to develop and expensive - spiral costs saw the Ministry of Defence reduce orders by 30%.

By letting autonomous drones and robots do the heavy lifting at their factory in Preston designers hope to work faster and cheaper.

Test Pilot Glyn Gogerty also explained that artificial intelligence (AI) analysis of data and feedback from simulator tests has rapidly sped up design.

“So the benefits of the simulation are that we can do all the testing much earlier, so that by the time we get to manufacturing the aircraft, we've got models that work and we have an aircraft that flies really well before we even get to the stage of manufacturing it.

"That saves a lot of time and a lot of cost in manufacturing."

The bill is already heading towards billions, with defence budgets stretched. Tempest will have to prove its money well spent.

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