The Air Force has flown a Cessna 206 with a robotic pilot it says can essentially turn an aircraft into a drone and then get turned back into a manned aircraft. The ROBOpilot flew a two-hour autonomous test flight at Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground Aug. 9 handling the takeoff, flight maneuvers and landing without human intervention. “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, senior scientist with the Air Force Research Lab’s, or AFRL’s, Center for Rapid Innovation, in a statement. “All of this is achieved without making permanent modifications to the aircraft.” DZYNE Technologies is partnering with the Air Force in developing the kit.
The machine mimics human interaction with the yoke and pedals, along with all the knobs and switches on the panel, even watching the gauges. “At the same time, the system uses sensors, like GPS and an Inertial Measurement Unit [essentially a way for a machine to locate itself in space without GPS] for situational awareness and information gathering. A computer analyzes these details to make decisions on how to best control the flight,” AFRL said in a statement. The accompanying video shows the robot making the corrections necessary to stay on the centerline during takeoff and maintaining runway heading after takeoff. The robot bounced the landing but recovered.