DARPA accelerates ultimate automated pilot software

DARPA awards three contracts to begin building plug-in automated system for existing aircraft that can help take care of all phases of flight

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded the first contracts to vendors that will build the ultimate auto-pilot - an automated system that can help take care of all phases of aircraft flight-even helping pilots overcome facing failures in-flight.

The idea behind the research agency’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) is to develop new automation software kit that could fit easily into existing aircraft systems and enable operation with a reduced flight crew while helping reduce pilot workload.

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“Considerable advances have been made in aircraft automation systems over the past 50 years. These advances have enabled reduced pilot workload, improved mission prosecution, and improved flight safety. Similarly, unmanned aircraft have developed and leveraged new automation systems to permit operation via remote crew. At the same time, large aircraft are capital-intensive developments generally subject to rigorous safety and reliability standards.” DARPA stated.

At the same time, these aircraft still present challenging and complex interfaces to operators, and despite demanding training regimens, operators can experience extreme workload during emergencies and other unexpected situations. Avionics and software upgrades can help, but can cost tens of millions of dollars per aircraft, which limits the rate of developing, testing and fielding new automation capabilities for those aircraft, DARPA stated.

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.

DARPA said it awarded ALIAS contracts to: Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation, Lockheed Martin Corporation and Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation.

 In Phase 1 of ALIAS, DARPA intends to focus on three critical technology areas:

  • Development of minimally invasive interfaces between new automation systems and existing aircraft
  • Knowledge acquisition on aircraft operations, to support rapid adaptation of the ALIAS toolkit across different aircraft
  • Human-machine interfaces that would enable high-level human supervision instead of requiring pilots’ constant vigilance over lower-level flight maintenance tasks.

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