US military eyes robot pilot buddy

Aurora Flight Sciences has won a $6m contract for Phase 1 of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Aircrew Labour In-cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) programme.

The objective of the ALIAS programme is to develop and insert new automation into existing aircraft in order to enable operation with reduced onboard crew through portable and extensible hardware and software allowing new levels of automation across a wide variety of military and civilian aircraft.

Manassas, Virginia-based Aurora, working with the National Robotics Engineering Center (Pittsburgh, PA) and the Duke Engineering Research Institute (Durham, NC), seeks to develop an automated assistant capable of operating an aircraft from takeoff to landing, automatically executing the necessary flight and mission activities, checklists and procedures at the correct phases of flight while detecting and responding to contingencies.

At the same time, the human pilot would be continuously informed through an intuitive interface of which actions the automation is executing, and take back control if so desired.

“The ability to reassign cockpit roles, allowing humans to perform tasks best suited to humans and automation to perform tasks best suited to automation, represents a potential paradigm shift compared to how flight operations are currently conducted,” said Dr Jessica Duda, Aurora’s ALIAS Programme Manager. “One of our key challenges is to develop a system that creates trust between the pilot and the automated assistant.”

Aurora’s industry team includes experts in sensing and perception, machine learning, robotics, flight controls, and automation, offering DARPA a potentially innovative and low-risk approach that could be affordably transitioned to flight operations.

“Successful introduction of such a system would help improve pilot performance and reduce individual workload, while also providing significant cost savings in the form of simplified training and lower crew costs,” said Dr. Javier de Luis, Aurora’s vice president of research programmes. “Because of its portability, its defined interfaces, and its open architecture system, I expect ALIAS to have broad applications across a wide range of both military and civilian transport systems.”

Read: NASA taps Rockwell Collins for single-pilot ops

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