Aerospace and Defense

Robot Flies Cessna Caravan

31 October 2016

A robotic system functioning under the supervision of a pilot has demonstrated its ability to guide a Cessna Caravan through a series of basic in-flight maneuvers, including airspeed increase, decrease, and a heading change.

Aurora Flight Sciences' robotic technology has demonstrated on three separate aircraft in the past year as part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA's) Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program. A video of the most recent flight can be viewed here.

The technology would allow pilots to turn over core flight functions to a robot. Image source: Aurora Flight Sciences.The technology would allow pilots to turn over core flight functions to a robot. Image source: Aurora Flight Sciences.The agency's vision for ALIAS is to create a "tailorable, drop-in, removable kit that would promote the addition of high levels of automation into existing aircraft, enabling operation with reduced onboard crew." The goals for this capability are reduced pilot workload, improved mission performance, and increased aircraft safety.

Aurora's robot functions as a second pilot in a two-crew aircraft, enabling reduced crew operations while aiming to ensure that aircraft performance is maintained.

In the first phase of the program, Aurora developed a non-invasive, extensible automated system that was tested on both a simulator and in-flight on a Diamond DA-42 aircraft. In the second phase, Aurora installed it in the Cessna Caravan.

"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," says John Wissler, Aurora's vice president of research and development.

Key elements of Aurora's technology include the use of in-cockpit machine vision, non-invasive robotic components to actuate the flight controls, speech recognition and synthesis, an advanced tablet-based user interface and a "knowledge acquisition" process that facilitates transition of the automation system to another aircraft within a 30-day period.

The company is now working to install the system on a Bell UH-1 helicopter.

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