David Szondy | New Atlas | Source URL
A new US Air Force kit that can turn a conventional aircraft into a robotic one has completed its maiden flight. Developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and DZYNE Technologies Incorporated as part of the Robotic Pilot Unmanned Conversion Program, the ROBOpilot made its first two-hour flight on August 9 at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah after being installed in a 1968 Cessna 206 small aircraft.
With modern autopilots, even small modern aircraft already have surprising ability to fly themselves, but there's a big difference between maintaining a course and actually flying an aircraft the way a human pilot does. From the opposite direction, autonomous drones are becoming increasingly sophisticated, but these tend to be highly specialized and expensive.
Funded by AFRL's CRI Small Business Innovative Research project, ROBOpilot is designed to make these two paths meet in the middle by replacing the pilot seat (and pilot) with a kit consisting of all the actuators, electronics, cameras, and power systems needed to fly a conventional aircraft, plus a robotic arm for the manual tasks. In this way, ROBOpliot can operate the yoke, rudder, brakes, throttle, and switches while reading the dashboard gauges and displays like a human pilot.
According to the Air Force, the installation is simple, non-invasive and non-permanent, using standard commercial technologies and components. This allows planes to be converted to unmanned operations without the complexity and costs of purpose-built UAVs, and switched back to human control configuration when required.
The recent flight comes after a year of building and testing that involved trialing the device concept using a RedBird FMX simulator to demonstrate how well it can fly in a simulated environment before progressing to the real thing. The US Federal Aviation Administration-certified trainer showed that ROBOpilot could carry out autonomous takeoffs, mission navigation, and landings in both normal and abnormal conditions.
"Imagine being able to rapidly and affordably convert a general aviation aircraft, like a Cessna or Piper, into an unmanned aerial vehicle, having it fly a mission autonomously, and then returning it back to its original manned configuration," says Dr. Alok Das, Senior Scientist with AFRL's Center for Rapid Innovation. "All of this is achieved without making permanent modifications to the aircraft."
The video below shows the maiden flight of the ROBOpilot.
Source: US Air Force