The future for fighter pilots was unveiled at the Farnborough International Air Show outside London, one of the world’s largest aviation, defense and aerospace exhibitions.

Read also: The Pentagon is close to an agreement on the purchase of F-35 aircraft worth about 30 billion dollars — Reuters

Manufacturers talked about how artificial intelligence and other technologies will be used in the latest military aircraft, and military delegations from around the world looked at mock-ups of missiles, drones and fighter jets. Many billions of dollars are at stake as countries upgrade their navies or increase defense procurement budgets amid rising geopolitical tensions.

Drones have been used extensively in the Russia-Ukraine war and other modern conflicts, raising questions about how necessary human pilots are to fly expensive fighter jets and other aircraft — or whether drones can do the job.

At the Farnborough air show, experts said the future of air warfare is likely to be manned and unmanned aircraft working together.

One day, fighter pilots will have “an unmanned aircraft that will fly like a faithful guide,” said John Norman, vice president of Raytheon Technologies Corp.’s missile and defense division.

Norman, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot, says that when he used to fly fighter jets, he complained about ground-controlled drones getting in the way. New communications systems allow fighter jets, drones and other aircraft to communicate with each other, he said.

In future battles, AI may allow a pilot to direct an armed drone into enemy positions and give the command to open fire for defeat,” Norman added.

“If we were having this conversation 20 years ago, almost everyone was convinced that some (drones) would serve as replacements for combat aircraft. That just hasn’t happened,” said Richard Aboulafia, managing director of AeroDynamic Advisory.

Currently, he said, drones mostly support manned military aircraft.

Read also: “Baykar” company, which produces drones, will never sell them to Russia

There had been speculation that the F-35, which entered service in 2015, would be the last manned fighter jet, said Gareth Jennings, aviation editor at defense intelligence firm Janes. “But nobody says that anymore.”

The F-35, created by Lockheed Martin Corp., is a stealth fighter belonging to the latest generation of military aircraft. The next generation of fighter jets is under development, offering even more high-tech advances, including potentially unmanned versions, but they won’t appear until the next decade.

The Air Combat Evolution program, carried out by the Pentagon’s research agency DARPA, is working on the implementation of artificial intelligence in combat, including the development of an aircraft that can control itself in combat.

The program has already simulated air combat, in which a virtual plane controlled by AI was pitted against a human pilot. If all goes well, the researchers plan to conduct real combat with AI-equipped aircraft by 2024.

Experts, however, are skeptical that pilots will be removed from the cockpit anytime soon. Unmanned technology and the public’s willingness to accept the absence of a human in the cockpit haven’t arrived yet, and won’t for at least another 30 years or so, they believe.

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