Scottish Start-ups, SMEs and Academia invited to offer new AI capability to next generation jets

Jonathan Smith pictured during his time as an RAF Pilot with the RAF F35B Lightning Squadron

IMAGINE the scene – you are sitting in a sixth generation fighter jet flying across unfamiliar terrain, it is pitch black and you need to make a decision in the next 5 seconds. 

How can you draw on technology that ensures you make the right choice?

That is the question that former RAF Fighter Pilot, Jonathan Smith, VP Capability, CTO, Future Combat Air (GCAP), Electronics Division, Leonardo UK, wants to pose to an AI star of the future in a Combat Air Artificial Intelligence Challenge competition being launched by the company this week, in collaboration with the UK MoD. 

Jonathan is well placed to make the call to action, having flown some of the world’s most advanced fighter jets from the UK and US and worked with pilots across the globe. He wants to see artificial intelligence and machine learning integrated into future capability. Machine learning is a branch of artificial intelligence (AI) and computer science that focuses on the use of data and algorithms to imitate the way that humans can learn and adapt.

Jonathan said: “We want to see how you far you can go with Machine Learning and AI in the Combat Air environment. What is the next step we can take in this field where the artificial intelligence can coordinate the gathering and handling of information by the sensors that act as the nervous system of the jet? We don’t just need it to process that data, we need the AI to go through a process of machine learning where it will offer the best solutions, better than a top co-pilot possibly could. Seconds can feel like hours up in the air if there is a trace of uncertainty on the best course of action, so we want to remove those stressors for the pilot and offer streamlined reasoning that stays true regardless of how complex the environment becomes.”

Leonardo, which has a site based at Crewe Toll in Edinburgh that employs over 2000 people, is seeking applications from SMEs, Start-ups and academia and winners could receive sixth months of funding for pilot projects, which could transform into long-term collaborations with Leonardo. 

The competition provides an opportunity for Leonardo to identify AI capabilities of the future that could be introduced into the combat air sector, defying the laws of what has been possible in the past in flight. 

In particular, winners could have the chance to contribute to Leonardo’s input to the UK’s most prestigious international fighter programme GCAP, the Global Combat Air Programme, which is a mission to create a new fighter jet for the UK, Italy and Japan by 2035. 

Leonardo is the UK lead for developing the advanced electronics on-board this next generation combat aircraft that will provide the aircrew with information advantage and advanced self-protection capabilities.

Jonathan believes that the winning entry will have to be able to juggle high volumes of complex data, so the pilot doesn’t have to. He said: “One of key areas will be looking to optimise is the performance of multiple sensors across lots of different platforms at the same time. We want the AI to optimise multiple sensor types across the platforms, creating a step change in claiming the operational advantage. Competition entrants need to challenge the AI to learn the best methods to deal with a number of different scenarios. We want the pilots of the future to benefit from all the hard work that will go into this AI Challenge. That’s the dream of AI, to start a new golden age of machine intelligence that elevates the pilot to new heights.”

To find out more about the competition, visit:

The latest stories