UAS & Robotics

DARPA awards contracts for ALIAS program


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has announced contract awards for its fairly new program that aims to retrofit and integrate autonomous systems with manned aircraft. The Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System, or ALIAS, program is described as “a tailorable, drop‐in, removable kit that would enable high levels of automation in existing aircraft and facilitate reduced need for onboard crew.”

The program would serve as a supplement to manned operators, taking over in case of system failures with additional autonomous capabilities for specific missions and a touch and voice interface.   

DARPA is ready to kick off Phase 1 of the ALIAS program, which will focus on three technology areas: 1) development of minimally invasive interfaces between new automation systems and existing aircraft; 2) knowledge acquisition on aircraft operations, to support rapid adaptation of the ALIAS toolkit across different aircraft; and 3) human-machine interfaces that would enable high-level human supervision instead of requiring pilots’ constant vigilance over lower-level flight maintenance tasks.

The main focus of the first phase is “to conduct the system architecture analyses, system requirements development, trade studies, and operational capability definition necessary to develop an optimized ALIAS system vision, architecture, and development approach and demonstrate an initial ALIAS instance on the ground,” according to a broad agency announcement. 

Aurora Flight Sciences, Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky Aircraft are being awarded prime contracts for the ALIAS program. 

“Because we want to develop a drop-in system for existing aircraft, we chose performers who could conduct actual ground and flight demonstrations at the start of the program instead of at the end,” Dan Patt, DARPA program manager, said. “We’re excited to have a lot of Phase 1 hardware ready to test, which we hope will steepen our learning curve and mature the capability faster. We will also be working closely with members of the crew-operations community, and will be integrating their feedback to help ensure that the move towards greater automation takes best advantage of machine and human skill sets.”

Aurora’s contract was awarded in December and is valued at $6 million, with the potential for $15.35 million if all options are exercised.

In terms of the program’s future, Phase II will be initiated if the government determines that the Phase I have developed a feasible system and approach. Phase II will focus on safety and integrating the concepts developed from Phase I. Results from Phase I will notify members of the government that; 1) ALIAS will result in safe, flyable new automation capabilities; 2) new ALIAS human interface models are feasible and effective for at least logistics and ISR mission sets; and 3) continuation into Phase III is warranted, according to DARPA documents. 

Phase III, similarly, will only kick in if Phase II objectives have been completed and are feasible. Phase III objectives include continued evolution of previously developed ALIAS systems installed and integrated into test aircraft. The final demonstration will include a test flight for a minimum of 12 hours that examines various aspects of typical operations such as ISR while employing developed ALIAS systems simultaneously.

Future contacts for Phases II and III will be limited to those in prior phases and must meet the standards outlined in DARPA’s broad agency announcement. DARPA expects the entire program to run 43 months. 

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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