Robot pilots may someday fly passenger planes

The robopilot never tires, gets bored, feels stressed out or gets distracted.
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The robopilot never tires, gets bored, feels stressed out or gets distracted.

Think of it as the airborne cousin to the self-driving car: a robot in the cockpit to help human pilots fly passengers and cargo - and eventually even replace them.

The US government and industry are collaborating on a programme that seeks to replace the second human pilot in two-person flight crews with a robot co-pilot that never tires, gets bored, feels stressed out or gets distracted.

The programme is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's arm for development of emerging technologies, and run by Aurora Flight Sciences, a private contractor.

The idea is to have the robot free the human pilot, especially in emergencies and demanding situations, to think ...
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The idea is to have the robot free the human pilot, especially in emergencies and demanding situations, to think strategically.

With both the military and airlines struggling with shortages of trained pilots, officials say they see an advantage to reducing the number of pilots required to fly large aircraft while at the same time increasing safety and efficiency by having a robot pick up the mundane tasks of flying.

The idea is to have the robot free the human pilot, especially in emergencies and demanding situations, to think strategically.

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"It's really about a spectrum of increasing autonomy and how humans and robots work together so that each can be doing the thing that it's best at,'' said John Langford, Aurora's chairman and chief executive

Langford even envisions a day when a single pilot on the ground will control multiple airliners in the skies, and people will go about their daily travels in self-flying planes.

At a demonstration of the technology at a small airport, a robot with spindly metal tubes and rods for arms and legs and a claw hand grasping the throttle was in the right seat of a single-engine Cessna Caravan.

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In the left seat, a human pilot tapped commands to his mute colleague on an electronic tablet. The robot did the flying.

Sophisticated computers flying planes aren't new. In today's airliners, the autopilot is on nearly the entire time the plane is in the air.

Airline pilots do most of their flying for brief minutes during takeoffs and landings, and even those critical phases of flight could be handled by the autopilot.

This programme, known as Aircrew Labour In-Cockpit Automation System, or ALIAS, goes steps further. For example, an array of cameras allows the robot to see all the cockpit instruments and read the gauges.

It can recognise whether switches are in the on or off position, and can flip them to the desired position. And it learns not only from its experience flying the plane, but also from the entire history of flight in that type of plane.

The ALIAS robot "can do everything a human can do'' except look out the window, Langford said. Give the programme time and maybe the robot can do that, too, he said.

In other ways, the robot is better than the human pilot, reacting faster and instantaneously calling up every emergency checklist for a possible situation, officials said.

In some ways, it will be like flying with a "co-pilot genius,'' Langford said. "The robot carries in them the DNA of every flight hour in that (aircraft) system, every accident,'' he said. "It's like having a human pilot with 600,000 hours of experience.''

The robot is designed to be a "drop-in'' technology, ready for use in any plane or helicopter, even 1950s vintage aircraft built before electronics.

But the robot faces a lot of hurdles before it's ready to start replacing human pilots, not the least of which is that it would require a massive rewrite of Federal Aviation Administration safety regulations. Even small changes to FAA regulations often take years.

Elements of the ALIAS technology could be adopted within the next five years, officials said, much the way automakers are gradually adding automated safety features that are the building blocks of self-driving technology.

 - AP

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