“Siri, Land the Plane”

This robot controls airplanes the same way people do, so it can fly almost anything people can.

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Aurora Flight Sciences recently released video (above) of one of its robots “landing” a simulated Boeing 737-800. The event, which took place at the Transportation Department’s simulator at the Volpe National Transport Systems Center in Massachusetts, was a feasibility demonstration for Aurora’s entry in the Aircrew Labor In-cockpit Automation System (ALIAS), a hardware and software project launched by DARPA that aims to reduce pilot workloads through automation. This is no autopilot upgrade or new line of avionics. Computers, properly programmed, are now smart enough to fly airplanes, and they no longer need hard-wired electronic access to everything.

In the 737 video, ALIAS uses a robotic arm to turn dials and flip switches on autopilot and autoland systems. A camera mounted to the robotic arm verifies that settings are correct. The arm moves throttles, too, and after touchdown engages reverse thrust, one engine at a time. When the video was posted online, some viewers questioned the value of ALIAS because it was moving so slowly. Jessica Duda, the ALIAS program manager for Aurora, says the robot was slow because it was the first time it had been used in that situation. “We’re always really cautious when using something for the first time. It can move a lot faster.”

DARPA wants to be able to add the system to any existing military aircraft, including helicopters, without subjecting the aircraft to extensive modifications or adding a new flight control system. And it wants the system to be operational within 30 days. “You can say ‘put it in a C-130’ and I have 30 days to do it,” says Duda.

Although elements of ALIAS are constant across all aircraft types, “it looks a little different in every airplane that it goes in,” she says. In the 737 demonstration, which is the most complex aircraft tested by Aurora, “we interfaced directly with the autopilot. In some cases we have a robotic system actually grabbing the yoke. In some cases we have a more extensive machine vision system installed. So I wouldn’t call it platform agnostic, I’d call it ‘extensible and modular.’”

Once ALIAS has been fitted to a new aircraft it can be added to any aircraft of that same model in less than a day, provided they have identical cockpits. ALIAS has been tested aboard a Cessna 208 Caravan turboprop, a twin-engine Diamond DA42, and even a Bell UH-1 helicopter.

One of the most critical components of the ALIAS system is a tablet computer. It allows pilots to command the robot to perform specific tasks such as changes in altitude, speed or heading. The tablet can be used to program ALIAS to control a flight from takeoff to landing, and comes loaded with aircraft-specific flight procedures. Not only can it produce checklists for normal and emergency operations, it can assist in completing them. And for the thick-fingered pilot, the system responds to voice commands.

Aurora’s version of ALIAS (Lockheed has a competing system) fits in the space normally occupied by a first officer or copilot. The entire system used for the 737 simulation weighed only 44 pounds, which means that when the copilot and his or her seat are removed, the system has shed hundreds of pounds of aircraft weight. The heaviest robot was installed in the Caravan, but even at 250 pounds, without the copilot and seat the overall weight for the Caravan was virtually unchanged.

As news of the 737 test broke, ALIAS became the butt of co-pilot jokes inspired by a pair of classic movies, namely the computer HAL from 2001 and the emergency inflatable co-pilot from the comedy Airplane!. The jokes were no surprise to Duda. “Oh yeah,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve been doing this program for two and a half years. I’ve heard them all.”

Not all the movie computers worked very well (“I’m sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can’t do that”), but ALIAS has the potential to transform virtually any airplane into an autonomous drone, or lend a helping hand (or hand-like extension) during emergencies or complex procedures. All the robotic arm needs is enough electrical power and room (Piper Cubs are out, but Cessna 152s will do), and pilots can sit back and relax. No more pesky ferry or maintenance test flights. Just let the robot do it for you. 

About Tim Wright

Writer and photographer Tim Wright is a regular Air & Space contributor whose assignments have ranged from Africa and Asia to the Arctic.

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