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The ALIAS program of the “digital pilot” technology initiated by US DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has been advancing. ALIAS (Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System) easily drops into an aircraft and becomes an invisible, automated co-pilot for a human pilot.

Potentially, ALIAS will be able to fly all sorts of military aircraft and commercial jets on its own, as reports.

Two teams are currently joining forces with DARPA to make ALIAS a reality: Aurora Flight Sciences and Lockheed Martin Sikorsky. One company will go on to win the ultimate ALIAS contract.

Aurora Flight Sciences has been working on a version with a robotic arm, and the team held a successful test on October 17 with a Cessna.

Lockheed’s ALIAS kit is about the size of a small briefcase, meaning a pilot can easily plug it into the aircraft. Remarkably, the same ALIAS smart tech can fly both rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft. After the mission, the pilot can easily pull the kit from the helicopter and then take that very same kit over to a fixed wing aircraft.

Technological innovations which enabled the design of ALIAS include a ramped up tablet user interface, “machine vision” that allows ALIAS to read the data displayed in the cockpit and methods to actuate flight controls, and more.

How does it work? From takeoff through to landing, the system can help with an entire mission. If something unexpected happens, like a system failure in flight, then ALIAS could support handling it or even address the problem itself. ALIAS could constantly monitor the health of the aircraft and enhance the maintenance, response and safety of the aircraft.

DARPA Program Director Dr. Daniel Patt explained to “The brain has learned and it knows how to fly the aircraft, how to hold the aircraft in a perfectly still hover inside a tiny space, it will beat the performance of a human pilot… If you tell the aircraft to crash into the ground it won’t let you do that,” he said. “It will keep you safe.”

At the Lockheed Martin Sikorsky testing, it was clear that the tech is so smart that someone on the ground can pilot it effectively with a bare minimum— if any— flight training. The interface is a tablet. Using a finger, the user can instruct ALIAS to make the helo fly higher, to hover, to fly a complex pattern, etc.

“In the long term, we envision this technology really changing the role of the human on board – so instead of trying to memorize what every button does and trying to know where to find the right procedure in the manual if something goes wrong, we can have a computer that does that,” Patt said. “And the human can focus on the big picture mission objectives.”

Aircraft these days already have a very high level of automation like autopilot, but this is a whole other level. Even in highly-advanced, highly-automated aircraft, pilots must manage a high volume of emerging data, handle complex tasks and rapidly respond to any emergency that might arise.  

As a digital teammate, ALIAS could free up the highly skilled human pilots to focus on tasks that require their special skill sets, talent and experience. Tasks like focusing on an enemy threat.

After this flight-testing phase, DARPA will move ALIAS to Phase 3 and that could include testing voice-recognition. This would allow pilots to interact with ALIAS like they would a human copilot in terms of flying the aircraft.

There’s potential, for example, for ALIAS to be used to augment the U.S. Army Blackhawk fleet. This tech has progressed so quickly, and is so smart and so promising, that ALIAS cyber co-pilots could be flying the skies in both military and civilian aircraft within the decade.