A robot pilot is learning to fly. It has passed its pilot’s test and flown its first plane, but it has also had its first mishap too.
Unlike a traditional autopilot, the ROBOpilot Unmanned Aircraft Conversion System literally takes the controls, pressing on foot pedals and handling the yoke using robotic arms. It reads the dials and meters with a computer vision system.
The US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and Dzyne Technologies have developed a robotic system that successfully flew a 1968 Cessna 206 for 2h during a demonstration at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah on 9 August.
The Robotic Pilot Unmanned Conversion Programme intends for a mechanical robot to fly an aircraft in same way as a human pilot would, says the AFRL. Its robotic system is called Robopilot.
To fly the aircraft, Robopilot grabs the yoke, pushes on the rudders and brakes, controls the throttle, flips switches and reads the dashboard gauges in the same physical way a pilot would, says AFRL. To maintain situational awareness, it uses sensors, such as a GPS and an Inertial Measurement Unit device. A computer processes information from those devices to decide the best way to control the aircraft.
Like many of the human pilots, this ROBOpilot has also passed the Federal Aviation Administration’s Practical Test, which is essential for flying light aircraft.
With modern autopilots, even small modern aircraft already have surprising ability to fly themselves, but there’s a big difference between maintaining a course and actually flying an aircraft the way a human pilot does. From the opposite direction, autonomous drones are becoming increasingly sophisticated, but these tend to be highly specialized and expensive.
Funded by AFRL’s CRI Small Business Innovative Research project, ROBOpilot is designed to make these two paths meet in the middle by replacing the pilot seat (and pilot) with a kit consisting of all the actuators, electronics, cameras, and power systems needed to fly a conventional aircraft, plus a robotic arm for the manual tasks. In this way, ROBOpliot can operate the yoke, rudder, brakes, throttle, and switches while reading the dashboard gauges and displays like a human pilot.
“Imagine being able to rapidly and affordably convert a general aviation aircraft, like a Cessna or Piper, into an unmanned aerial vehicle, having it fly a mission autonomously, and then returning it back to its original manned configuration,” said Dr. Alok Das, Senior Scientist with AFRL’s Center for Rapid Innovation.
According to the Air Force, the installation is simple, non-invasive and non-permanent, using standard commercial technologies and components. This allows planes to be converted to unmanned operations without the complexity and costs of purpose-built UAVs, and switched back to human control configuration when required.
Das continued, “All of this is achieved without making permanent modifications to the aircraft.” It’s a smooth and easy transition but still has to be carefully monitored.
Turning fighter jets into autonomous drones can be a lengthy and costly mission, so ROBOpilot could be the answer to this problem. It can be inserted into almost any lightweight aircraft, and easily taken out afterward.
There are other robotic pilots out there, notably Pibot from South Korea and ALIAS by the U.S. Department of Defense. That said, both have yet to man an entire plane unaided like Robopilot.