A developmental robot pilot that transforms manned aircraft into unmanned systems is flying again after the Air Force Research Laboratory took its ROBOpilot out for a test flight at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, Sept. 24.

ROBOpilot’s name belies the simplicity of the program. In order to turn a manned aircraft into an unmanned one, AFRL simply replaces the human pilot with a robot who interacts with the aircraft controls the same way a human would: it can pull the yoke, press pedals to control rudders and brakes, adjust the throttle and flip switches. In addition to the robot’s own internal GPS and inertial measurement unit, the system scans the gauges on the dashboard for information about the aircraft and its position, processing that information with a computer to independently fly the plane.

Importantly, ROBOpilot requires no permanent modifications. All operators need to do is remove the pilots' seats and replace them with ROBOpilot. And if users determine that they want to return the aircraft to a manned mission, ROBOpilot is simply removed and the pilots' seats are reinstalled.

The robotic system is the result of a Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) award granted to DZYNE Technologies by the AFRL’s Center for Rapid Innovation (CRI).

Despite a successful first flight in August 2019, the system was later grounded after it maintained damage during a landing mishap.

“The CRI and DZYNE team analyzed the findings and incorporated the recommendations to ensure the success of this latest test,” said Marc Owens, CRI’s program manager for ROBOpilot. “We determined the cause of the mishap, identified the best course of corrective action and we’re very pleased to be flight testing again.”

Since then, ROBOpilot has been cleared to fly again and installed in a new Cessna 206. On Sept. 24, the system returned to the skies for a 2.2 hour test flight over Utah.

“Since this is a completely new build with a different Cessna 206, we re-accomplished the flight test points completed on our first flight last year,” Owen explained. “ROBOpilot is too good an idea to let the mishap derail the development of this technology.”

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

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