The Air Force’s Robot Pilot Returns to the Skies

 In Air, Forces & Capabilities, Information

A devel­op­men­tal robot pilot that trans­forms manned air­craft into unmanned sys­tems is flying again, with the Air Force Research Laboratory taking ROBOpilot out for a test flight at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, Sept. 24.

ROBOpilot’s name belies the sim­plic­i­ty of the pro­gram. In order to turn a manned air­craft into an unmanned one, AFRL simply replaces the human pilot with a robot who inter­acts with the air­craft con­trols the same way a human would — It can pull the yoke, press pedals to con­trol rud­ders and brakes, adjust the throt­tle, flip switch­es and more. In addi­tion to the robot’s own inter­nal GPS and iner­tial mea­sure­ment unit, the system scans the gauges on the dash­board for infor­ma­tion about the air­craft and its posi­tion, pro­cess­ing all of that infor­ma­tion with a com­put­er to inde­pen­dent­ly fly the plane.

Importantly, ROBOpilot requires no per­ma­nent mod­i­fi­ca­tions. All oper­a­tors need to do is remove the pilots’ seats and replace them with ROBOpilot. And if users deter­mine that they want to return the air­craft to a manned mis­sion, ROBOpilot is simply removed and the pilots’ seats are rein­stalled.

The robot­ic system is the result of a Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) award grant­ed to DZYNE Technologies by the AFRL’s Center for Rapid Innovation (CRI).

Despite a suc­cess­ful first flight in August 2019, the system was later ground­ed after it main­tained damage during a land­ing mishap.

“The CRI and DZYNE team ana­lyzed the find­ings and incor­po­rat­ed the rec­om­men­da­tions to ensure the suc­cess of this latest test,” said Marc Owens, CRI’s Program Manager for ROBOpilot. “We deter­mined the cause of the mishap, iden­ti­fied the best course of cor­rec­tive action and we’re very pleased to be flight test­ing again.”

Since then, ROBOpilot has been cleared to fly again and installed in a new Cessna 206. On Sept. 24, the system returned to the skies for a 2.2 hour test flight over Utah.

“Since this is a com­plete­ly new build with a dif­fer­ent Cessna 206, we re-accom­plished the flight test points com­plet­ed on our first flight last year,” Owen explained. “ROBOpilot is too good an idea to let the mishap derail the devel­op­ment of this tech­nol­o­gy.”

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