Drop-in autonomous system would reduce flight crews

DARPA ALIAS concept

The military is not only using more unmanned aircraft, but even manned flights could have fewer personnel, as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency seeks to develop a drop-in kit that would increase automation in existing aircraft.

DARPA recently announced the creation of the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program. The program envisions a removable and tailorable drop-in kit that would enable more automation, leveraging 50 years of advancement in aircraft automation systems.

The ALIAS program would provide a variety of benefits, including a reduced onboard crew, reduced pilot workload, improved aircraft safety and augmented mission performance.

“Our goal is to design and develop a full-time automated assistant that could be rapidly adapted to help operate diverse aircraft through an easy-to-use operator interface,” said Daniel Patt, DARPA program manager. “These capabilities could help transform the role of pilot from a systems operator to a mission supervisor directing intermeshed, trusted, reliable systems at a high level.”

Large aircraft require rigorous safety and reliability standards and tend to be capital-intensive ventures. As a result, expenses severely limit the development of autonomous capabilities and the rate at which they are tested and fielded.

The drop-in system would allow high levels of automation to be installed on a variety of aircraft, managing flight activities, conducting failure management and allowing an operator to act as a mission commander.

According to the announcement, ALIAS is focusing on three primary technical areas:

  • The creation of a minimally invasive interface the will be capable of operating aircraft functions. The system is expected to be portable and only require installation in the cockpit
  • The acquisition of aircraft procedural information and existing flight mechanics information or models by the automation system.
  • The development of a human interface in which the operator provides high-level input for replanning and mission-level supervision, reducing the attention load required for lower-level flight maintenance tasks.

Potential participants will be able to learn more about these technical objectives through a proposers’ day  scheduled for May 14, 2014. Advance registration is required and closes on May 7 at 3 p.m. Eastern time.

Previous programs have primarily focused on drop-in autonomous systems for ground vehicles and rotary wing aircraft. Early this year, the Army Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) successfully demonstrated the Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System (AMAS), a kit can that be installed on virtually any military vehicle. TARDEC demonstrated the concept of autonomous convoys that are capable of avoiding obstacles and navigating through traffic.

Meanwhile, the Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (AACUS) was installed on a MH-6 Little Bird in a test this month, allowing the helicopter to deliver supplies autonomously, with a handheld tablet used to control the helicopter. The 100-pound system can be installed on different rotary wing air platforms.

DARPA is looking to have a series of progressive systems demonstrations starting from ground-based development. The ALIAS program ultimately seeks to port the system to different aircraft types and to have a comprehensive, robust flight demonstration that includes responses to simulated emergency situations.

About the Author

Joey Cheng is an editorial fellow with Defense Systems.

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