Despite half a century of creating automated flight systems, emergencies aboard military aircraft still require flight crews to multitask like a one-tentacled octopus. DARPA is hoping to change this with its Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program aimed at producing a drop-in automated flight control system designed to make the pilot's life simpler, while reducing the size of flight crews.
Military aircraft have grown increasingly complex over the years, and automated systems have also evolved to the point where they provide so much help that some aircraft can't be flown without them. However, the complex controls and interfaces require intensive training to master, yet can still overwhelm even experienced flight crews in emergency situations. In addition, many aircraft, especially older ones, require large crews to handle the workload. According to DARPA, avionics upgrades can help alleviate this problem, but only at a cost of tens of millions of dollars per aircraft type, which makes such a solution slow to implement.
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This is where the ALIAS program comes in. The idea is that instead of retrofitting planes with a bespoke automated system, DARPA wants to develop a tailorable, drop‐in, removable kit that takes up the slack and reduces the size of the crew by drawing on both past decades of work in automated systems and newer developments in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).
DARPA says that it wants ALIAS to not only be capable of executing a complete mission from takeoff to landing, but also handle emergencies. It would do this through the use of autonomous capabilities that can be programmed for particular missions, as well as constantly monitoring the aircraft's systems.
According to DARPA, developing ALIAS will require advances in three areas. First, because ALIAS will require working with a wide variety of aircraft while controlling their systems, it will need to be portable and confined to the cockpit. Second, the system will need to use existing information about aircraft, procedures, and flight mechanics. And third, ALIAS will need a simple, intuitive, touch and voice interface because the ultimate goal is to turn the pilot into a mission-level supervisor while ALIAS handles the second-to-second flying.
At the moment, DARPA is seeking participants to conduct interdisciplinary research aimed at a series of technology demonstrations from ground-based prototypes, to proof of concept, to controlling an entire flight with responses to simulated emergency situations.
“Our goal is to design and develop a full-time automated assistant that could be rapidly adapted to help operate diverse aircraft through an easy-to-use operator interface,” says Daniel Patt, DARPA program manager. “These capabilities could help transform the role of pilot from a systems operator to a mission supervisor directing intermeshed, trusted, reliable systems at a high level.”
DARPA has scheduled a Proposers' Day on May 14 at DARPA’s offices in Arlington, Virginia.