Automobiles aren’t the only vehicles that have autonomous capabilities, as aircraft have been operating as drones for years now in both the private and military sectors. The military has always adopted new technologies for unmanned aviation- including stealth, which is evident in Northrop Grumman’s X-47B UCAS and other platforms. The Air Force has once again used the latest technology to fly autonomous aircraft, only this time it’s robotic.
The Air Force is currently testing a robotic system that can pilot most of the military’s aircraft with limited modifications, meaning it can fly anything that a human pilot can. Most all of the military’s aircraft utilize a fly-by-wire system where joysticks, yokes, pedals, and other physical controls are linked together to manipulate the aircraft’s control surfaces and engines.
Adding sophisticated computers and upgrading hardware for autonomous control isn’t cost-effective in these situations when autonomous platforms already exist, which is why the Air Force has recently contracted with a company called DZYNE Technologies who specialize in designing autonomous aircraft and systems. The company has developed what they term ROBOpilot, under the company’s Robotic Pilot Unmanned Conversion Program.
The robot isn’t built as a humanoid figure that can hop in and out of aircraft; instead it’s more like a box that’s packed with robotic components able to fly aircraft. ROBOpilot houses a series of sensors, actuators, robotic arm, and its own power supply that’s is capable of operating a plane’s yoke, rudder/brake peddles, and engine throttle. It can also flip any necessary switches on the dashboard when needed to fly the aircraft and uses a camera system to monitor the plane’s dials and gauges.
ROBOpilot was tested at the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, where it successfully flew a small Cessna aircraft for several hours, including taking off, navigating specific routes, and landing the plane without human intervention. While ROBOpilot isn’t quite ready to tackle the military’s more expensive aircraft, it’s a promising platform that will help extend the life of existing aircraft someday soon.