Unmanned aircraft are generally either built from the ground up, with robotic systems integrated from the earliest design stages, or are existing aircraft that are extensively modified to add such systems so they can fly without a human pilot on board. But there is a third option – a drop-in robotic system that can fly an unmodified aircraft in much the same way as a human pilot. RE2 Robotics has been tapped by the US Air Force to develop such a system.

RE2 Robotics is a Carnegie Mellon spin-off located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that has developed a bomb disposal robot with the dexterity to dismantle a bomb, keeping its components intact for forensic examination, and is working on a similarly dexterous robot intended to perform bomb disposal duties underwater.

The company will now leverage its experience in creating robots with dexterous manipulator arms to develop the Common Aircraft Retrofit for Novel Autonomous Control (CARNAC) system for the USAF after receiving a US$1.49 million contract from the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

Similar to the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) being developed by Aurora Flight Sciences as part of a DARPA program, CARNAC is intended to bring autonomous unmanned flight control capabilities to existing piloted craft without requiring any modifications to the aircraft.

The system will be designed to sit in the pilot's seat and operate the aircraft in the same way as a human pilot. To this end, over the course of the program the company will need to demonstrate a robotic system that can manipulate controls like a human, has vision-based flight-status recognition, and cognitive architecture-based decision making.

"By creating a drop-in robotic pilot, we have the ability to insert autonomy into and expand the capabilities of not only traditionally manned air vehicles, but ground and underwater vehicles as well," says Jorgen Pedersen, president and CEO of RE2 Robotics. "This application will open up a whole new market for our mobile robotic manipulator systems."

Source: RE2 Robotics