Another is Immersive Wisdom, a 13-person startup based in Boca Raton, Florida, whose backers include the CIA’s venture arm, In-Q-Tel. The company also brought virtual reality headsets to the recent cruise missile drills, with software that allowed personnel from four distant locations to stand side by side as avatars in a virtual command center.

CEO Mike Appelbaum, who founded a previous CIA-backed startup in 1999, says it’s now much easier for software startups to work with the Pentagon. Immersive Wisdom gots its first small Air Force contract late in 2018, and it progressed to a multimillion-dollar deal last year, with help from the Air Force’s tech accelerator. Just a few years ago, selling software to the Pentagon typically took at least a year from first pitch to sale, Appelbaum says.

Anduril’s main showing at last month’s exercises was Lattice, the software developed to control its equipment for border or base surveillance, but now aimed at linking up anything. Ahead of the exercise, Anduril engineers built software to gather data from existing Air Force systems such as radars and acoustic sensors, and to relay commands to pilots and other hardware. The company brought along three missile-detection towers it had built, packing sensors including radar and cameras.

The Air Force is testing ideas for a sprawling new program, called the Advanced Battle Management System, designed to link up everything from fighter jets to legged robots.

Photograph: Cory D. Payne/US Air Force

When the mock missiles started flying, Anduril algorithms tracked the foreign objects and alerted Lattice users that the system had detected what appeared to be a missile. The software can be used on conventional displays, but the main operator during the exercise used a VR headset from Facebook’s Oculus division, a descendant of the technology Anduril cofounder Luckey sold the social network. Inside the headset, Lattice displayed a 3D map of White Sands Missile Range with aircraft and other objects highlighted.

That airman could confirm a missile alert by calling up camera feeds and other data inside the virtual environment. Selecting the missile and labeling it hostile brought up a menu of options for how to respond, which in turn relayed orders to humans controlling weapons systems, such as fighter pilots. “In effect, a single human being was able to operate a large number of systems simultaneously,” says Christian Brose, Anduril’s head of strategy. Lattice was used to track and tackle five mock missiles in the exercise, he says. Brose says Anduril wants to expand the role of AI in making decisions like that, but not replace human judgment. “We’re hyper-aware of what this technology can and cannot do today,” he says.