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Robot in command

Shall we solo a Cessna?

On Aug. 9 at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, a Cessna 206 under robotic control flew a first solo that lasted for two hours. Alas, there were no shirttails to cut.

The Air Force Research Laboratory Center for Rapid Innovation collaborated with DZYNE Technologies to produce ROBOpilot, and install it in a 1968 Stationair. While this is not the first time a general aviation airplane has flown under digital command (Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences has been making human pilots “optional” for years), ROBOpilot is far more portable. The system, visually rather evocative of a steampunk solution, is designed to be mounted on a rack that can slide into the space left by removing a pilot seat.

“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,” said Dr. Alok Das, CRI’s senior scientist, in a news release. “All of this is achieved without making permanent modifications to the aircraft.”

ROBOpilot has actuators that manipulate the yoke, rudder pedals, and throttle, and optical sensors that read steam gauges just like a human.

Engineers spent a year designing and testing the robot. The staged approach to training it to fly included time in a Redbird FMX, where the robot completed simulated operations in normal and “off-nominal” conditions. The Aug. 9 flight in Utah was ROBOpilot’s first solo.

There was no human in this loop, according to the AFRL press release: ROBOpilot uses sensors including GPS and an inertial measurement unit “for situational awareness and information gathering. A computer analyzes these details to make decisions on how best to control the flight.”

The Air Force Research Lab did not mention any plans for a cross-country, and it’s not clear whether a $100 hamburger is in this pilot’s future. Perhaps a squirt of oil and a fresh battery would be more suitable.

“ROBOpilot offers the benefits of unmanned operations without the complexity and upfront cost associated with the development of new unmanned vehicles,” Das said in the news release.

Time precluded requesting an interview with ROBOpilot to talk about that first solo. We just have one particular question for it: 01000011 01100001 01101110 00100000 01111001 01101111 01110101 00100000 01110011 01100101 01100101 00100000 01101101 01111001 00100000 01010000 01101001 01110000 01100101 01110010 00100000 01100001 01110100 00100000 00110011 00100000 01101111 00100111 01100011 01101100 01101111 01100011 01101011 00111111

Jim Moore
Jim Moore
Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: Drone, Technology

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