A robotic arm has taken control over a Cessna Caravan in a experiment that paves the way for autonomous flying

Robot first officer flies Cessna Caravan plane in DARPA experiment

Image credit: Aurora Flight Sciences

A robotic arm has taken control of a single-engine turboprop Cessna Caravan in an experiment demonstrating technology developed as part of a DARPA programme.

The robot first officer performed several tasks during the experimental flight supervised by a human captain, including decreasing and increasing the aircraft speed and changing direction. At the end, the robot arm handed over the control to the human pilot.

The demonstration, which took place in Virginia, USA, was part of the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) project overseen by the US military research agency DARPA. The technology itself was developed by Aurora Flight Sciences, a US aviation and aeronautics research company specialising in unmanned aerial vehicle technology.

“ALIAS enables the pilot to turn over core flight functions and direct their attention to non-flight related issues, such as adverse weather, potential threats or even updating logistical plans,” said John Wissler, Aurora’s Vice President of Research and Development.

The firm previously demonstrated the system in a Bell UH-1 helicopter and the Diamond DA42 four-seater plane.

“Demonstrating our automation system on the UH-1 and the Caravan will prove the viability of our system for both military and commercial applications,” Wissler said.

DARPA envisions that the robot arm, controllable via a tablet interface, could in future reduce crew workload and even reduce the number of crew present in the cockpit.

The idea is for the robot pilot to be removable and transferable between different types of aircraft. It would serve as an additional component to existing autopilot capabilities.

The system is equipped with machine vision capabilities, speech recognition and synthesis technology and a knowledge acquisition systems that allows transferring the robot’s ‘knowledge’ into another aircraft within 30 days. 

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