Robot Co-Pilot Successfully Flies and Lands Boeing 737

A robot co-pilot has managed to fly and land a Boeing 737 in a flight simulator as part of a US military-funded project. The automated system was designed by Aurora Flight Sciences and is part of a research project which would promote more automation on existing aircraft.

This has lead the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), part of the US Department of Defense team responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military, to advocate the use of robots in their planes.

With DARPA's Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program, the military have evolved to incorporate automated capabilities, improving mission safety and success rates.

From the co-pilot's seat, ALIAS uses machine vision in which the computer running the system will take and understand visual input, essentially seeing things just as a human would. In addition, it can manipulate the flight controls just like a human. Similar to the Amazon Alexa voice command assistant, it is capable of speech recognition and speech synthesis, formulating responses to communicate with the pilot.

Robot co-pilot. Robot co-pilot.

"Having successfully demonstrated on a variety of aircraft, ALIAS has proven its versatile automated flight capabilities," said John Wissler, Aurora's vice president of research and development.

"As we move towards fully automated flight from take-off to landing, we can reliably say that we have developed an automation system that enables significant reduction of crew workload."

Obviously, such technology raises concerns that pilots should be fearing the day that their seats in the cockpit are given to robotic arms. But that isn’t what ALIAS was created for, at least according to Aurora. Instead, the system was designed to “extend rather than replace human capabilities,” according to a 2015 New York Times article. An Aurora program manager further explained that this technology would “use the humans for what the humans are really good at and the automation for what the automation is really good at.”

So far, in addition to the 737, ALIAS has performed successful flight scenarios in Diamond DA42, UH-1 Iroquois, and DHC-2 Beaver aircraft, as well as the Cessna 208 Caravan.