The ultimate auto-pilot software gets $15M boost

DARPA program aims to cultivate automated assistant to help fly aircraft, overcome emergencies

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Credit: DARPA

The development of an automated system that can help take care of flying an aircraft -- even perhaps helping pilots overcome in-flight system failures got another big boost this week when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded Aurora Flight Sciences $15.3 million to move development of the software into a second phase.

DARPA says the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System or ALIAS program, which was announced in 2014 envisions a tailorable, drop-in, removable software kit that allows the addition of high levels of automation into existing aircraft. “Specifically, ALIAS intends to control sufficient features to enable management of all flight activities, including failure of aircraft systems, and permit an operator to act as a monitor with the ability to intervene, allowing the operator to focus on higher level mission objectives,” DARPA stated.

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ALIAS that would build upon what the agency called the considerable advances that have been made in aircraft automation systems over the past 50 years, as well as the advances made in remotely piloted aircraft automation, to help reduce pilot workload, augment mission performance and improve aircraft safety.

As an automation system, ALIAS would execute a planned mission from takeoff to landing, even in the face of contingency events such as aircraft system failures. The ALIAS system would include persistent state monitoring and rapid procedure recall and would provide a potential means to further enhance flight safety. Easy-to-use touch and voice interfaces could enable supervisor-ALIAS interaction, DARPA stated.

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Aurora Flight Sciences in Phase II of ALIAS development will focus on refinement of the overall system, risk reduction, demonstration of rapid installation time and more in-flight demonstrations, DARPA stated. Aurora, Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky Aircraft were awarded Phase I ALIAS contracts.

During Phase I Aurora wrote that it was working with the National Robotics Engineering Center (Pittsburgh, PA) and the Duke Engineering Research Institute (Durham, NC), to develop an automated assistant capable of operating an aircraft from takeoff to landing, automatically executing the necessary flight and mission activities, checklists and procedures at the correct phases of flight while detecting and responding to contingencies. At the same time, the human pilot would be continuously informed through an intuitive interface of which actions the automation is executing, and take back control if so desired, the company stated.

When the program was introduced DARPA outlined three key technical areas ALIAS would focus on including:

  • Minimally invasive interfaces from ALIAS to existing aircraft: It is anticipated that the ALIAS system would need to operate aircraft functions to provide automated operation. Systems generally confined to the cockpit would support the vision of portability.
  • Knowledge acquisition on aircraft operations: To support adaptation of the ALIAS toolkit across different aircraft in a short amount of time, it is anticipated the ALIAS system would benefit from the use of existing host aircraft procedural information, existing flight mechanics information or models, or other methods of rapidly developing requisite aircraft information.
  • Human-machine interfaces: A vision for ALIAS is that the human operator provides high‐level input consistent with replanning and mission‐level supervision and is not engaged in lower‐level flight maintenance tasks that demand constant vigilance.

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