A robot flew a Cessna 206 for two hours on 9 August as part of a US Air Force project to develop a drop-in system that would convert a manned aircraft into a drone or, strictly speaking, an optionally piloted aircraft.
Senior scientist with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Alok Das, said the system called Robopilot offered the benefits of unmanned operations without the complexity and upfront cost associated with the development of new unmanned vehicles.
‘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,’ he said.
‘All of this is achieved without making permanent modifications to the aircraft.’
The system was installed in the Cessna by removing the pilot’s seat and installing a frame in its place, which contains all the equipment necessary to control the aircraft including actuators, electronics, cameras, power systems and a robotic arm.
The AFRL says, ‘the system “grabs” the yoke, pushes on the rudders and brakes, controls the throttle, flips the appropriate switches and reads the dashboard gauges the same way a pilot does. At the same time, the system uses sensors, like GPS and an Inertial Measurement Unit, for situational awareness and information gathering. A computer analyses these details to make decisions on how to best control the flight.’
Engineers demonstrated the initial concept in a full-motion simulator where it successfully completed simulated autonomous take-offs, navigation and landings.
Robopilot is similar to the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency’s aircrew labour in-cockpit automation system (ALIAS) program. ALIAS has been tested in a Diamond DA42, Cessna 208 Caravan, Bell UH-1 Iroquois, de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver and has flown a simulated Boeing 737-800NG.
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