Updated 6:02 PM EDT, Wed, Apr 01, 2020

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DARPA Making Good Progress in Developing ‘Robotic Co-Pilots’ for US Warplanes

Robot is my co-pilot

(Photo : DARPA) ALIAS program from DARPA (concept).

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) reports significant progress in a program to develop smart robotic co-pilots that will eventually pilot a host of U.S. military aircraft in the future.

DARPA said it's made notable progress on two different concepts for robotic copilots that are part of its program called ALIAS (Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System) that will autonomously operate aircraft and also offer advice to a human pilot.

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ALIAS envisions a custom, drop-in, removable kit that will promote the addition of high levels of automation into existing aircraft, enabling operation with reduced onboard crew.

The program intends to exploit the considerable advances made in aircraft automation systems over the past 50 years, and similar advances in remotely piloted aircraft automation, to help reduce pilot workload, augment mission performance and improve aircraft safety.

As an automation system, ALIAS aims to support execution of an entire mission from takeoff to landing, even in the face of contingency events such as aircraft system failures.

ALIAS system attributes such as persistent-state monitoring and rapid recall of flight procedures will further enhance flight safety. Easy-to-use touch and voice interfaces will facilitate supervisor-ALIAS interaction.

ALIAS will also provide a platform for integrating additional automation or autonomy capabilities tailored for specific missions.

The two defense contractors developing these robotic co-piloting systems, Aurora Flight Sciences and Sikorksy, conducted a series of flight demonstrations in October ahead of a federal government decision to select a single vendor for the program's third and final phase.

The impetus behind the ALIAS program is to develop a system that can reduce the number of crew onboard manned aircraft, going "from two pilots down to one, and then possibly down to zero," explained Jean Charles-Lede, program manager of DARPA's tactical technology program office, during a recent briefing.

The companies were challenged to develop an ALIAS system that can be integrated with at least 80 percent of Department of Defense aircraft, including older models that lack the all-digital cockpits and fly-by-wire technology of modern planes and helicopters, said Jessica Duda, Aurora's ALIAS program manager. 

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