Robotic Pilot with License Takes to the Skies as It Handles Flight Controls Solo

The Air Force Research Laboratory has joined the robotics troops with their new 'ROBOpilot.'
Fabienne Lang

You may have noticed one or two autonomous vehicles or robotic gadgets plodding along naturally down on the ground, but have you seen a plane fly autonomously?

Of course, there's autopilot on planes, but this is a different matter. 

This robotic pilot, dubbed ROBOpilot takes full control. Much like a human, it pushes down on foot pedals and maneuvers the yoke with its robotic arms. It also uses its computer vision operating system to read and understand the speed dials and monitors on the flight deck.

It's a robot autonomously flying a plane. 


How is it possible for a robot to fly a plane unassisted?

Like many of the human pilots, this ROBOpilot has also passed the Federal Aviation Administration's Practical Test, which is essential for flying light aircraft. And on August 9th, it flew its first flight that lasted two hours.

Robotic Pilot with License Takes to the Skies as It Handles Flight Controls Solo
A Cockpit view of ROBOpilot attached to seat rails with no permanent modifications to the aircraft. Source: Courtesy Photo/Wright-Patterson AFB

Since then, however, there has been an incident in which the robot was damaged, but the extent of this damage has not been disclosed. 

So this ROBOpilot can take off, carry out a flight plan and land itself, and the aircraft completely unassisted. 

It's called a 'drop in' system, which means all seating, where the pilot usually sits, is removed, and the robot takes its place. 

This makes it an easy and fast replaceable option if and when required to undertake an autonomous flight path. 

Who created the Robopilot, and why?

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and DZYNE Technologies created the robot and completed its first successful flight plan in early August. 

"Imagine being able to rapidly and affordably convert a general aviation aircraft, like a Cessna or Piper, into an unmanned aerial vehicle, having it fly a mission autonomously, and then returning it back to its original manned configuration," said Dr. Alok Das, Senior Scientist with AFRL’s Center for Rapid Innovation.

Robotic Pilot with License Takes to the Skies as It Handles Flight Controls Solo
A 1968 Cessna 206 with ROBOpilot installed preparing for engine start on the runway at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. Source: Courtesy Photo/Wright- Patterson AFB

Das continued, "All of this is achieved without making permanent modifications to the aircraft." It's a smooth and easy transition but still has to be carefully monitored. 

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Turning fighter jets into autonomous drones can be a lengthy and costly mission, so ROBOpilot could be the answer to this problem. It can be inserted into almost any lightweight aircraft, and easily taken out afterward. 

There are other robotic pilots out there, notably Pibot from South Korea and ALIAS by the U.S. Department of Defense. That said, both have yet to man an entire plane unaided like Robopilot.

“The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense visual information does not imply or constitute DOD endorsement.”

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