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September 20, 2019 | International, Aerospace

USAF Picks B-21 For Software Learning Demo Challenge


The U.S. Air Force has selected the Northrop Grumman B-21 to demonstrate a potentially revolutionary approach to flightworthy software.

The future stealth bomber will demonstrate a software architecture running the operational flight program (OFP) that learns and adapts as it flies a mission, says Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics.

Such an approach potentially “allows them to land with better code than they took off with,” Roper tells Aerospace DAILY. The architecture enables the code to update itself during a mission.

Asked if the demonstration involves software code in the OFP, the operating system of a military aircraft, Roper replied affirmatively: “Within the OFP. That kind of adaptability is what we want to aspire to.”

As a special access program, details of the B-21's schedule, capabilities and even cost are kept secret. But Roper says he is able to discuss what he calls the “digital bullet challenge,” albeit within strict limits. Asked if the B-21 software demonstrations imply the insertion of a deep learning technique known as a neural network, Roper declined to answer.

“Details of how I won't go into,” Roper says. “But B-21 is trying to not just do agile software. They want to blaze new territory, a new trail for the Air Force. The idea that one of our most complicated airplanes with one of the most challenging missions is also taking on one of the most challenging software approaches to make their software living [and] breathing on the plane itself is inspiring.

“They're going to be pushing the boundaries of how aircraft software should work in this century, and increasingly the software is where the cutting edge—the winning edge—is going to come from,” he explained.

Roper's description appears to push the boundaries of software used in the flight computers of a commercial or military aircraft. Aircraft certification standards demand a highly rigid approach to software architecture, with the function of each line of code validated and verified on the ground before it is allowed to be used in flight. The challenge set for the B-21 could lead to altering or even adding software lines of code in the OFP during a flight.

The Air Force launched the B-21 program in 2015 by awarding a $21.4 billion contract to Northrop. Air Force officials have previously announced that first flight is scheduled around December 2021. The aircraft will take off from Northrop's final assembly center in Palmdale, California, and fly to the flight test center on the adjoining Edwards Air Force Base.

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