US Air Force sends software updates to one of its oldest aircraft midair

WASHINGTON — For the first time, the U.S. Air Force updated the software code on one of its aircraft while it was in flight, the service announced Oct. 7.

And there’s a surprise twist: The aircraft involved wasn’t the “flying computer” F-35, the mysterious B-21 bomber still under development, or any of the Air Force’s newest and most high-tech jets. Instead, the service tested the technology aboard the U-2 spy plane, one of the oldest and most iconic aircraft in the Air Force’s inventory.

On Sept. 22, the U-2 Federal Laboratory successfully updated the software of a U-2 from the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, which was engaged in a training flight near Beale Air Force Base, California, the Air Force said in a news release.

To push the software code from the developer on the ground to the U-2 in flight, the Air Force used Kubernetes, a containerized system that allows users to automate the deployment and management of software applications. The technology was originally created by Google and is currently maintained by the Cloud Native Computing Foundation.

For the demonstration, the U-2 lab employed Kubernetes to “run advanced machine-learning algorithms” to the four flight-certified computers onboard the U-2, modifying the software without negatively affecting the aircraft’s flight or mission systems, the service said.

“The successful combination of the U-2′s legacy computer system with the modern Kubernetes software was a critical milestone for the development of software containerization on existing Air Force weapon systems,” said Nicolas Chaillan, the Air Force’s chief software officer.

During a Sept. 15 interview with C4ISRNET, Chaillan hinted that the service would soon be able to update the software of flying aircraft, calling the capability a “gamechanger” and describing the challenges involved with ensuring the aircraft could be updated without posing a safety risk.

“We need to