US Air Force’s Upgraded ROBOpilot Takes to the Skies

September 29, 2020 Updated: October 7, 2020

The U.S. Air Force’s ROBOpilot is back in the driving seat—or, rather, where the seat should be.

Autonomous aircraft are currently being developed by many militaries around the world. Designs typically sit somewhere between two approaches: start from scratch with no capacity to carry a human; or tap into the electronic brain of an existing modern fly-by-wire aircraft.

ROBOpilot by contrast is a crude mechanical hack that can take over lower-tech planes—a machine that grips and controls the steering yoke, pushes on the rudders and brakes, and even reads the gauges on the dashboard.

Following a previous “mishap,” an upgraded ROBOpilot took to the skies again last week, successfully taking a regular propeller plane for a two-hour test flight, the Air Force announced on Sept. 28.

The Air Force describes the device as “an applique kit that converts a general aviation aircraft into an unmanned aerial vehicle rapidly and affordably without making any permanent modifications to the aircraft.”

Installation requires taking out the seats and attaching ROBOpilot to the seat rails.

“The system can fly missions autonomously and then be removed to return the plane to its manned configuration,” according to a statement by the Air Force.

ROBOpilot has its own internal sensors, such as GPS, and an inertial measurement unit, and uses a computer to make decisions. But it relies on the same means of control as a human pilot.

“ROBOpilot interacts with the aircraft in the same manner as a pilot in that it ‘grabs’ the yoke, pushes the rudders and brakes, controls the throttle, reads the dashboard gauges, etc.,” according to the Air Force statement.

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The unmanned, autonomous system by the Air Force Research Laboratory known as ROBOpilot installed in a Cessna 206 propeller plane on Sept. 24, 2020. (Air Force/Courtesy)

Autonomy is being developed across the U.S. military as a whole. Autonomous jets, tanks, helicopters, and submarines not only eliminate the risk to human life but are also potentially cheaper and simpler to make. With no flesh and blood to protect, the weapons need less armor, less air, less space, and have fewer design constraints.

But the use of autonomy isn’t only expected in the cutting-edge machines on the battlefield, but is also being eyed for wide use in logistics and support.

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The Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie during a test flight in this March 28, 2020 dated handout photograph from the Air Force. (U.S. Department of Defense)

ROBOpilot is being developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory, Center for Rapid Innovation, and DZYNE Technologies Inc. It successfully completed its fourth flight test on Sept. 24 at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, piloting a CESSNA 206 for 2.2 hours.

While ROBOpilot first flew last August, it was later benched after a mishap and rebuilt.

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A U.S. Navy EA-18G Growler assigned to the USS Carl Vinson on May 3, 2017, over the Western Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman John Linzmeier)

“We determined the cause of the mishap, identified the best course of corrective action and we’re very pleased to be flight testing again,” said Marc Owens, the program manager for the project.

“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. ROBOpilot is too good an idea to let the mishap derail the development of this technology.”

The U.S. Air Force announced in July that four prototype jets will compete for its vision of an unmanned autonomous fighter that can team up with a human-piloted lead aircraft.

The Skyborg project, sometimes called the “unmanned wingman,” is one of the Air Force’s key modernization programs.

The approach has already been tested in principle by the adoption of regular fighter jets for autonomy through fly-by-wire systems.

On Jan. 5, the Navy simultaneously flew two autonomously piloted Growler jets, using a third human-piloted jet as a mission controller.

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