This task was part of DARPA’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program, which uses automated controls and robots to attempt flight maneuvers, including takeoff and landing. This recent touchdown was part of a series of tasks performed by the robot. According to DARPA, the robot could potentially be installed in existing aircraft as a backup safety measure in case of mid-flight emergencies that render the pilot incapable of performing such maneuvers.
DARPA’s piloting robot doesn’t look overly complex. On the contrary, it features a single arm which is uses to control the plane. Nonetheless, ALIAS is a sophisticated machine that aims to tackle a growing problem in modern aircraft: the need for skilled pilots. Operating aircraft requires substantial knowledge of how the plane works, and how its controls work. The ALIAS robot seeks to ease this learning curve by performing such tasks automatically, without the need for an actual human pilot.
According to a press release, DARPA is developing ALIAS as a “drop-in” mechanics package that can be installed in existing aircraft, particularly fixed and rotor aircraft. Officials say that it can work with small aircraft such as a Cessna, as well as large aircraft like a B-52. And once the system is installed, it can analyze the aircraft’s components, essentially “learning” how to pilot and control the plane. ALIS observes in the background to see how the plane operates. Using this information, it adjusts itself accordingly to achieve maximum safety and performance.
“Having successfully demonstrated on a variety of aircraft, ALIAS has proven its versatile automated flight capabilities,” says John Wissler, Aurora’s Vice President of Research and Development. “As we move towards fully automated flight from take-off to landing, we can reliably say that we have developed an automation system that enables significant reduction of crew workload.”
So, when can you expect to see the ALIAS controlling passenger jets? There’s still no word on when, or even if it, that will happen. With that said, this recent demonstration offers a positive outlook into the project’s future. Perhaps it will be used on select aircraft to ensure it functions as intended. And then maybe we’ll see it implemented in other aircraft.