Would you board a plane knowing that one of the flight crew wasn’t human? This may be a valid concern for those working in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) ALIAS program. ALIAS, in this case, stands for Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System – a robot designed to take part in the control of a plane along human pilots. ALIAS takes the form of a mechanical arm that can control a conventional flight ‘stick’ while monitoring the aircraft’s gauges and sensors, just as a real pilot would do. ALIAS was initially created to fly military aeroplanes, but may also be able to pilot commercial vehicles such as those manufactured by Boeing. The robot co-pilot is not specifically intended to replace human flight personnel, but instead to take over tasks that are most suited to automation while the pilot attends to more complicated flight procedures.
An alternative to software
DARPA asserts that modern military planes are equipped with highly complex and extensive hardware to increase the chances of safety and completion in air-related missions. However they also acknowledge that no amount of training can cover the operation of all plane controls while also responding to emergency or unusual situations while in flight. Therefore, military avionics and software have evolved to assist with the intricacies found in modern-day cockpits. However, these adaptations are expensive. Therefore, DARPA may have implemented ALIAS for an alternative to these costs.
The ALIAS system consists of a robot arm and integrated cameras that ‘watch’ various gauges and controls in a cockpit so as to act as a co-pilot. The arm can adjust the central control stick, throttle and rudder in response to the readings it ‘sees’. Some reports say that ALIAS has successfully flown relatively small planes, namely the Cessna Caravan and Diamond DA42. A more recent release claims that it subsequently moved on to a Boeing 737 simulator, with which it both assisted in flight and completion of a landing.
The ALIAS achieved this at a U.S. Department of Transportation centre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, it took part in a flight in a mock 737 cockpit, which it ‘flew’ unaided, and also knew to implement the flight simulator’s automatic landing system at an appropriate juncture. This involved using its actuators to adjust the flaps, thrusters and airspeed at the optimal time-points in-flight. ALIAS also turned on the automatic brake and deployed the landing gear successfully during the simulated landing.
This experiment may demonstrate that an ALIAS robot could be deployed in the case of an emergency; for example, if a pilot is unable to continue mid-flight, the plane in question could still be safely under control. ALIAS is designed to be able to drop into an existing co-pilot seat, which may be an advantage over an automated system that necessitates re-fittings or alterations in current aircraft. DARPA claim that ALIAS can handle the entire course of a flight, from landing to take-off. It can be programmed with an aircraft’s particular system and recall relevant details at short notice. It can also monitor in a steady-state, so as to augment a flight crew’s work in terms of mundane or repetitive tasks.
Help in system flight failure
DARPA also maintains that ALIAS is prepared to manage situations such as system flight failure. It can be controlled through a physical interface and also by voice. The agency aims to have ALIAS fly missions in a completely autonomous manner. In a world with unmanned drones and remotely-controlled vehicles, this may not be such a radical concept. However, one simulated test flight may not give a complete idea of how the robotic pilot would handle emergencies. The information DARPA have released to the public also does not specify how ALIAS would handle heavy weather or other adverse events in flight. The information on its reaction times and responses to complex problems, which a pilot may be expected to encounter and manage, is also lacking. However, it is a generally interesting demonstration of how aviation can be automated today.
Automated cockpit. Source: (Darpa)
ALIAS is a robot mainly consisting of an arm, almost like something that could be found on a production line, programmed to use its actuators to manipulate the controls found in an aeroplane’s cockpit. It was designed by DARPA to provide an ‘alternative co-pilot’ that assists human crew with complex or repetitive tasks in flight. ALIAS has demonstrated the ability to fly Cessna or Diamond planes. However, it has also recently moved on to practising on Boeings; it successfully landed a 737 simulator located in Massachusetts. DARPA intend the ALIAS system to either augment a cockpit crew, or to replace a co-pilot in an emergency. However, ALIAS may represent a first step into fully automated planes in military and even commercial spheres.
Considering the recent controversy over the need for a certain airline’s pilots to take holidays at the expense of customers, one may wonder if systems like ALIAS may be called upon to provide a solution to this in the near future. These robots also offer advantages to the pilots of tomorrow; adding one to the cockpit would leave human captains free to deal with advanced flight procedures or issues. The ALIAS system demonstrates that a robot may be able to control and land a plane safely. However, it may be up to airline customers to determine whether robot co-pilots will become an acceptable norm in the future.
Top image: Cockpit with the robot arm. (Darpa)
Moseman, A. A Robot Copilot Just Flew—and Landed—a 737 Sim. Popular Mechanics. 2017. Available at: http://www.popularmechanics.com/flight/news/a26532/darpa-robot-autopilot-737-landing/
Drozeski, G. Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS). DARPA Program Information. 2017. Available at: https://www.darpa.mil/program/aircrew-labor-in-cockpit-automation-system