Autonomous flights: USAF is exploring robot planes for jet transport

The plans aim to automate the entire flying process, from taxiing to taking off and landing, with only remote human supervision.
Christopher McFadden
USAF multi-engined jet
USAF multi-engined jet

Reliable Robotics 

To improve autonomous flight, the US Air Force has given Reliable Robotics a contract to study how to turn multi-engine transport jets into robotic planes that can handle all parts of a flight independently, from taxi to landing.

Warfare is not just about kinetic engagement between armed units. As many past generals have found to their dismay, an unreliable supply chain is often the difference between victory and defeat. This is as true today as it has been in the long history of warfare.

Transport planes like the Boeing C-17 "Globemaster III" and the Lockheed Martin C-5 "Galaxy" are essential to the United States military's worldwide duties. These allow the US Air Force to transport personnel quickly and their gear anywhere worldwide while also supplying them with supplies indefinitely.

To attain and sustain it, however, is very expensive, and it frequently entails sending aircrews into hostile environments where they may come into contact with anti-aircraft weapons. Also, many pilots are needed, always in high demand and cost a lot.

The Air Force has hired Reliable Robotics to look into how to fix this by automating current cargo planes. Though the concept is not new, adding huge, multi-engine jet transports flying military supply missions to the technology adds another layer of complication.

If the idea is successful, the Air Force can enhance its cargo missions without having to train more pilots or construct more planes. Additionally, it will potentially increase safety because, with more advanced artificial intelligence systems, autonomous flight computers will be better equipped to handle some emergencies by instantly calculating alternate flight paths, as opposed to human pilots who would have to rely on intuition.

The new contract aims to make self-flying planes that can do everything from taxiing to taking off and landing with only remote human supervision. It will also make navigation more accurate, make flight controls stronger, and make it easier to fly planes in different kinds of weather.

Dr. David O'Brien, a major general and senior vice president of government solutions at Reliable Robotics, remarked, "We consider the Air Force an essential mission partner."

"Our vision is to provide [the] remote piloting capability to [various] aircraft. This contract furthers our focus on automation of large, multi-engine jet aircraft, which is an important step in our developmental roadmap," he added.

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