A Robot Copilot Just Flew—and Landed—a 737 Sim
A robot arm can fly an airliner.
You may remember DARPA’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) from such flights as the time it piloted a Cessna. Now the robotic arm is moving up to bigger and better planes. DARPA just announced that ALIAS has flown and landed a simulated Boeing 737.
In brief: ALIAS sits in the copilot’s seat and uses cameras to monitor all the dials and gauges and switches in a cockpit, feeding that information to a processor. The system has a robotic arm to move the throttle and actuators to control the rudder and control column. It previously flew a Diamond DA42 and then the Cessna Caravan last October.
This time, ALIAS went to a Boeing 737-800NG simulator at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, MA. The machine not only flew the plane during the sim but also used the 737’s automated landed system to set it down safely, showing it could do so if it ever needed to—say, if the human pilot were incapacitated.
Obviously machines can fly themselves without any human occupants—for years now we’ve had drones flown by remote human pilots, and UAVs are learning to fly with more and more autonomy. ALIAS, however, was made to stand in as the copilot on a two-person flight crew, allowing the flesh-and-blood occupants to attend to other matters of the mission while its chill robot arm keeps the plane on course. It might take a while, though, before watching a robot copilot is anything but out-of-this-world.