Inside Darpa’s Plan to Make Old Aircraft Autonomous With Robot Arms

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There’s a reason Tesla and its competitors use the term “autopilot” for their semi-autonomous cars: Aviation is way ahead of the auto industry when it comes to making machines handle themselves.

And yes, the very latest Airbus, Boeings, and F35 fighter jets can pull all sorts of tricks to help the pilot. But the vast majority of the planes in the sky, military and civilian, still rely on humans pilot to manipulate the joysticks and pedals that move their flaps and ailerons.

Now, the US Department of Defense says it can make those primitive aircraft, built around cables and pulleys, ready for the age of autonomy—and a robotic arm is part of the answer.

Autonomy will prove a crucial feature of 21st century air transportation and warfare, but it’s not the easiest thing to add to the current fleet. The US Air Force still flies dozens of Boeing B-52 bombers and A-10 “Warthogs.” They entered service nearly half a decade ago, long before computer controls, let alone head-up displays. But they’re reliable and effective, and they’re sticking around.

“To reacquire all new vehicles with [autonomous] capabilities would be ridiculously expensive,” says Professor John Hansman, who runs MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation.

So Darpa, the Pentagon’s go-to player for making crazy ideas reality, is working on retrofit systems that allow engineers to ‘fly’ those aging planes and helicopters by giving them instructions on a tablet computer, then sitting back to enjoy the ride—or watch it overhead.

That’s why it created Alias, the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System program. (Question America’s military might all you like: Its acronym game is fire.) Unlike military drones, which pilots usually control remotely, Darpa wants technology that can execute a mission from takeoff to landing with little to no human intervention.

“The work that Darpa has arranged shows that this vision is feasible,” says Daniel Patt, the program manager for Darpa’s Tactical Technology Office.

The problem here isn’t creating software to control an aircraft, though that’s tricky enough. It’s finding a way to fit that software into the entire existing fleet of fixed wing and rotary aircraft, and making it work with old-timey mechanical controls. “It seems a little steampunk—but it’s actually really logical,” says Patt.

The two companies that picked up Darpa’s challenge, Aurora and Sikorsky, have recently demonstrated very different, but so far effective, approaches.

Aurora Flight Sciences, based in Manassas, Virginia, took the Johnny Cab from Total Recall path: a humanoid machine that takes the physical place of the human. A robotic arm, the base of which takes the co-pilot’s seat, pushes and pulls on the controls. When it trains its cameras on the instrument panel, it can read the dials and readouts like a human pilot.

“It’s intended to be fully capable, if the pilot became incapacitated,” says Aurora’s Jessica Duda. “The vision is to allow the pilot to become more of a mission manager.” After successfully controlling a Diamond DA-42 and a Cessna Caravan, the arm and eyes are learning to fly a Bell UH-1 Helicopter.

Sikorsky also relegates the pilot to a flight planner role and uses a tablet as the man/machine interface, but its system is a bit more subtle. Instead of swinging a big metal arm, engineers at Connecticut-based Lockheed Martin company connect the tablet software system to the mechanical controls with actuators, which they fit under the cabin floor and inside various inspection panels around the airframe.

The setup leaves room for a human in the co-pilot’s seat, but is more complicated to install and to swap between aircraft, than Aurora’s system. Sikorsky also uses vision system to monitor the gauges, as well as the pilots’ behavior. Down the road, clever software could interpret gestures or body language, like slumping over, to know when to step in with a bit of automated flying assistance.

The company demonstrated its system’s universality by having the same pilot with the same tablet first fly an F76 helicopter, and then immediately perform another mission in a Cessna Caravan plane.

Today, teaching a human to fly a Cessna is an annoyingly long process, with ground school, certification tests, and thousands of pages of manuals to memorize. The pilot of the future will have an easier time.

“Why not make the pilot’s job simple? Pick up a tablet and fly the aircraft,” says Patt.

It’s a fast approaching reality. Igor Sikorsky, the company’s eponymous founder, envisioned a helicopter in every garage. The reality that helicopters are complicated to fly and airspace tricky to manage scuttled his dream (along with cost). Now his company is making it possible—maybe.

“We’ll have several modes of operation,” says Igor Cherepinsky, who runs Sikorsky’s autonomy programs. “They’ll include a ‘take me here mode’ with a 3D map. You just click and say go.”

Both companies will have to work with the Federal Aviation Administration and military agencies before their systems enter widespread use. They’re a solid proof of concept though, and give hope to anyone who wants to see the B-52 stay airborne—even without a human inside.

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