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The US Air Force is gearing up for large technology research, requesting some $2.5 billion for research in its budget for fiscal year 2017. Some of the technologies the USAF is banking on are laser weapons for fighter jets, autonomous AI-controlled tactical aircraft, and quick and efficient data-mining solutions.

USAF Chief Scientists Greg Zacharias recently warned that China and Russia are investing significant manpower and finances into catching up with US technological advances, and the US can’t afford to slow the pace of development lest it fall behind.

“I think we need to do a leapfrog and push the technology even farther, and not sit on our laurels,” Zacharias said.

All is not gloom, however. The USAF could have jets equipped with high-powered lasers in just five years. The Air Force “has not yet settled on a platform to host the laser,” DefenseNews reports, but several possibilities are being considered. Whatever they settle on, USAF Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) “Shield” programme hopes to showcase a working prototype by 2021.

Another project in AFRL’s pipelines is an intelligent system that can quickly sort and analyse data from diverse intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems. Currently, this task is performed by humans, and consists of viewing hours of video footage, looking for anything notable enough to escalate up the chain of command.

“Instead of the airmen sitting there looking at hours and hours of data, a machine can comb through that and help at least filter out what’s the most important,” said AFRL’s Kristen Kearns. “It lessens workload but it also has our airmen doing the work that we want them to do as opposed to essentially watching the grass grow.”

One of the most impressive developments is AFRL’s recent “surrogate” F-16 UAV demonstration. In the demonstration, a manned F-16 flew in formation with the test aircraft. The “surrogate” F-16 had a pilot sitting in the cockpit, waiting to taking over in the event something went wrong, but the actual piloting was performed by algorithms. This system is still a work a progress, but it could pave the way for trully autonomous fighter jets.