The US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and Dzyne Technologies have developed a robotic system that successfully flew a 1968 Cessna 206 for 2h during a demonstration at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah on 9 August.

The Robotic Pilot Unmanned Conversion Programme intends for a mechanical robot to fly an aircraft in same way as a human pilot would, says the AFRL. Its robotic system is called Robopilot.

To fly the aircraft, Robopilot grabs the yoke, pushes on the rudders and brakes, controls the throttle, flips switches and reads the dashboard gauges in the same physical way a pilot would, says AFRL. To maintain situational awareness, it uses sensors, such as a GPS and an Inertial Measurement Unit device. A computer processes information from those devices to decide the best way to control the aircraft.

Robopilot first flight in Cessna 206


“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 Alok Das, senior scientist with AFRL’s Center for Rapid Innovation. “All of this is achieved without making permanent modifications to the aircraft.”

The installation involves replacing a pilot's seat with a frame holding equipment necessary to control the aircraft, including actuators, a robotic arm, sensors, cameras, power systems and various other electronics, says AFRL.

It is not known how long the installation takes, or if any special training or equipment is required, as AFRL did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It is also not known how many general aviation aircraft are compatible with Robopilot.

AFRL and Dzyne of Irvine, California designed, built and tested Robopilot over the past year. Before attempting flight, a joint team of engineers demonstrated the robotic system performing autonomous takeoffs, mission navigation and landings in a RedBird FMX simulator, says AFRL. The research lab says the RedBird simulator is a full-motion, Federal Aviation Administration-certified trainer.

Experiments with Robopilot are similar to Aurora Flight Sciences’ work on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) programme. In that programme, a drop-in, removable robotic kit was installed and tested in a Diamond DA42, Cessna 208 Caravan, Bell UH-1 Iroquois, and de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver. The system later prepared a simulated Boeing 737-800NG for an auto-landing.

ALIAS robotic system prepares simulated Boeing 737-800NG for an auto-landing

Aurora Flight Sciences