A robot has successfully landed a Boeing 737 simulator ... and it did it one handed. Built and operated by Aurora Flight Science as part of DARPA's Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program, the robot's touchdown was one of a series of flight maneuvers carried out by the system as part of the development of an automated co-pilot that can be quickly and cheaply installed in existing aircraft.
With its single, ungainly arm operating the jet simulator's controls, it may seem like an ill-conceived replacement for a human pilot. Far from it. ALIAS is a sophisticated system aimed at addressing the very real problem of the growing complexity of modern aircraft. Not only is it very difficult for pilots to qualify on an unfamiliar airplane without lengthy instruction and practice, but operating such craft can be highly distracting – especially when executive decisions are required in a hurry.
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Automatic flight systems can help alleviate these problems by acting as an onboard trainer as well as a co-pilot, but current engineering procedures require either redesigning an aircraft from scratch to incorporate them, or undertaking lengthy and expensive refits that are a custom job for each mark and mod of airframe.
ALIAS is being developed to get around this. It's designed as a drop-in avionics and mechanics package that can be quickly and cheaply fitted to a wide variety of fixed and rotor aircraft, from a Cessna to a B-52. Once installed, ALIAS is able to analyze the aircraft and adapt itself to the job of second-pilot.
Along with the robotic arm, the ALIAS system incorporates an advanced tablet-based user interface, speech recognition and machine learning. Alternative versions will drop the robotic arm and provide support to the pilot by tracking the aircraft's physical, procedural, and mission state.
The idea is that, once ALIAS is fully developed it will be able to familiarize itself the aircraft within a month and take over many of the pilot's functions, allowing them to concentrate on higher level decisions and not be distracted during emergencies. In addition, it will allow for smaller crews with a subsequent drop in operating costs.
The ALIAS test was carried out in a Boeing 737-800NG simulator at the US Department of Transportation's John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So far, ALIAS has been demonstrated in a Cessna 208 Caravan, UH-1 Iroquois, DHC-2 Beaver aircraft, and Diamond DA42 twin-engine prop plane. The latter included a demonstration of the system's ability to initiate cockpit procedures in real time as it brought the aircraft in from a simulated landing from 3,000 ft (915 m).
"Having successfully demonstrated on a variety of aircraft, ALIAS has proven its versatile automated flight capabilities," says John Wissler, Aurora's Vice President of Research and Development. "As we move towards fully automated flight from take-off to landing, we can reliably say that we have developed an automation system that enables significant reduction of crew workload."
The video below shows ALIAS' impressive dexterity at the controls.