When American Pilots Go To War, DARPA Wants A Robot As Their Co-Pilot

Military Tech

Someday when American pilots go to war, a robot may be their co-pilot.

Not a mere auto-pilot. But essentially a robot pilot that can perform routine piloting tasks, leaving the pilot free to concentrate on firing weapons.

That’s the goal of DARPA’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) . And DARPA just demonstrated the concept when an S-76B—the civilian version of the Army’s UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter—performed maneuvers outside Fort Eustis, Virginia.

The helicopter flew over a small crowd, “landed in an adjacent field after adjusting to miss a vehicle, and rose up to hover perfectly motionless for several minutes,” according to a DARPA news release . Not exactly dramatic airmanship—except there was no airman at the controls. An Army Blackhawk pilot was controlling the S-76 from a tablet computer while sitting in another aircraft.

Lt. Col. Carl Ott, chief of Flight Test for the Army’s Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center’s Aviation Development Directorate, had only first used the tablet three days ago.

“During the hour-long flight demonstration, Ott interfaced with the autonomous capabilities of the system to conduct a series of realistic missions, including aircrew tasks such as low-level terrain flight, confined area takeoffs and landings, landing zone selection, trajectory planning, and wire-obstacle avoidance,” DARPA said. “Before climbing in the cockpit, Ott practiced the mission plan with the ALIAS simulator, a tool that could help reduce mission planning and preparation time for future operators, allowing them to rehearse maneuvers in advance.”

The Army calls this Mission Adaptive Autonomy. “It’s there when the pilot needs the aircraft to fly itself and keep it free of obstacles, so the pilot can focus on more of the mission commander type role,” Ott said. “But the pilot is able to interact with the system to re-suggest, re-route or re-plan on the fly.”

DARPA envisions a kit that can quickly add a robot co-pilot to any manned aircraft. The ALIAS project is entering its final phase, as Blackhawk manufacturer Sikorsky begins integrating the system into a UH-60 for a 2019 flight test.

One question about the project is which aircraft this will benefit. For aircraft such as cargo planes, tankers and helicopters performing routine tasks, this could be useful. For example, DARPA notes that hovering in adverse winds demands a helicopter pilot’s attention, but a computer can do it with precision while leaving the pilot free to concentrate on other tasks. But for a jet fighter in combat, which tasks are routine enough for a machine to take over? Maintaining speed and altitude? Taking evasive action?

But what’s really interesting isn’t how revolutionary ALIAS is, but evolutionary. Airline flights are already under automated control for much of their time in the air, with the human pilot taking over during key portions such as takeoff, landing and bad weather. A robot co-pilot is just the next step.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook .

This article originally appeared on The National Interest.

More from The National Interest:

Every once in a while, we run across a photo in The Times-Picayune archives that's so striking that it begs a simple question: "What in the name of Momus Alexander Morgus is going on in this New Orleans photograph?" When we do, we've decided, we're going to share it — and to attempt to answer that question.

Read More Show Less
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces control the monitor of their drone at their advanced position, during the fighting with Islamic State's fighters in Nazlat Shahada, a district of Raqqa. (Reuters/Zohra Bensemra)

MUSCAT (Reuters) - The United States should keep arming and aiding the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) following the planned U.S. withdrawal from Syria, provided the group keeps up the pressure on Islamic State, a senior U.S. general told Reuters on Friday.

Read More Show Less

President Donald Trump claims the $6.1 billion from the Defense Department's budget that he will now spend on his border wall was not going to be used for anything "important."

Trump announced on Friday that he was declaring a national emergency, allowing him to tap into military funding to help pay for barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Read More Show Less

Long before Tony Stark took a load of shrapnel to the chest in a distant war zone, science fiction legend Robert Heinlein gave America the most visceral description of powered armor for the warfighter of the future. Forget the spines of extra-lethal weaponry, the heads-up display, and even the augmented strength of an Iron Man suit — the real genius, Heinlein wrote in Starship Troopers, "is that you don't have to control the suit; you just wear it, like your clothes, like skin."

"Any sort of ship you have to learn to pilot; it takes a long time, a new full set of reflexes, a different and artificial way of thinking," explains Johnny Rico. "Spaceships are for acrobats who are also mathematicians. But a suit, you just wear."

First introduced in 2013, U.S. Special Operations Command's Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) purported to offer this capability as America's first stab at militarized powered armor. And while SOCOM initially promised a veritable Iron Man-style tactical armor by 2018, a Navy spokesman told Task & Purpose the much-hyped exoskeleton will likely never get off the launch pad.

"The prototype itself is not currently suitable for operation in a close combat environment," SOCOM spokesman Navy Lt. Phillip Chitty told Task & Purpose, adding that JATF-TALOS has no plans for an external demonstration this year. "There is still no intent to field the TALOS Mk 5 combat suit prototype."

Read More Show Less

D-Day veteran James McCue died a hero. About 500 strangers made sure of it.

"It's beautiful," Army Sgt. Pete Rooney said of the crowd that gathered in the cold and stood on the snow Thursday during McCue's burial. "I wish it happened for every veteran's funeral."

Read More Show Less