The age of widespread autonomous flight came another step closer as DARPA announced its Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) has completed Phase 2 of its development program. The drop-in, removable kit designed to convert conventional aircraft into advanced automated vehicles requiring fewer crew was installed in two different Cessna 208 Caravan fixed-wing aircraft, a Diamond DA-42 fixed-wing aircraft, and a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter.

According to DARPA, the ALIAS-equipped aircraft successfully completed flight demonstrations as well as responding to simulated flight emergencies while on the ground that included systems failures that could cause pilots to deviate from normal procedures. In both cases, the agency says that ALIAS worked without adversely affecting airworthiness.

ALIAS is intended as a way of automating various military aircraft without making bespoke modifications to each individual plane design. The idea is to develop a kit that can be installed in the cabin of an aircraft, where it can take control and fly missions from takeoff to landing as well as handling emergencies based on existing vehicle information, procedures, and flight mechanics.

The current version fits within the airframes of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters under the cabin floor, where it's connected to existing mechanical, electrical, and diagnostic systems. Once installed, pilots can communicate with ALIAS using gestures on a tablet computer

"In Phase 2, we exceeded our original program objectives with two performers, Sikorsky and Aurora Flight Sciences, each of which conducted flight tests on two different aircraft," says Scott Wierzbanowski, DARPA program manager. "In Phase 3, we plan to further enhance ALIAS' ability to respond to contingencies, decrease pilot workload, and adapt to different missions and aircraft types. We're particularly interested in exploring intuitive human-machine interface approaches — including using handheld devices — that would allow users to interact with and control the ALIAS system more easily. Ultimately, we want to design for and demonstrate the improved ALIAS system across as many as seven previously untested fixed- and rotary-wing platforms."

In June, Phase 1 was completed using a Sikorsky S-76 commercial helicopter, which flew from Stanford to Plainville, Connecticut, while the pilot monitored proceedings from a tablet. DARPA has announced Sikorsky has been chosen to work on Phase 3.