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US Air Force Can Now Turn Small Planes Into Robots

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Center for Rapid Innovation (CRI) and DZYNE Technologies completed a two-hour test flight of a new robot plane Aug. 9 at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.

"This flight test is a testament to AFRL's ability to rapidly innovate technology from concept to application in a safe build up approach while still maintaining low cost and short timelines," said Maj. Gen. William Cooley, AFRL commander.

The new revolutionary Robotic Pilot Unmanned Conversion Program, called ROBOpilot, interacts with flight controls just like a human pilot.

"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. "All of this is achieved without making permanent modifications to the aircraft."

The robot manipulates the yoke, pushes on the rudders and brakes, regulates the throttle, observes the instrument panel the same way a pilot does. "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.

Once the flight is completed, ROBOpilot can be quickly uninstalled from a plane. The system is the size of a pilot's seat, which includes all the equipment needed to control the aircraft including actuators, electronics, cameras, power systems, and a robotic arm.

Das said ROBOpilot is a non-invasive way towards robotically piloted aircraft leverages existing commercial technology and components. It's a low-cost alternative compared to military drones that cost $15 to $200 million.

"ROBOpilot offers the benefits of unmanned operations without the complexity and upfront cost associated with the development of new unmanned vehicles," Das said.

AFRL uploaded a short video of the test flight onto YouTube last week. 

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