This article also appears in
Subscribe now »

DARPA’s ALIAS (Aircrew Labor In-cockpit Automation System) program demonstrates its developmental technology system on a Cessna 208 Caravan fixed-wing aircraft and a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter during Phase 2 flight tests.

DARPA works toward unmanning aircraft

DARPA’s Aircrew Labor In-cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program envisions flight operations with reduced onboard aircrew while improving mission performance and flight safety. This is achieved with a tailorable, drop-in, removable kit that would provide advanced automation to existing aircraft.

The ALIAS demonstration system fits under the cabin floor and within the airframe of both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters and quickly connects to an aircraft’s existing mechanical, electrical, and diagnostic systems. Through ALIAS, the pilot flies the aircraft by means of a tablet computer that recognizes familiar gestures such as swiping and tapping. Pilots can use the same tablet to fly ALIAS-equipped airplanes and helicopters.

DARPA has recently completed Phase 2 of this development effort, successfully completing flight demonstrations of ALIAS technology installed in two different Cessna 208 Caravan fixed-wing aircraft, a Diamond DA-42 fixed-wing aircraft, and a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter.

Phase 2 also included successful ground demonstrations of ALIAS responding to various simulated flight contingency events, such as system failures, that might cause pilots to deviate from pre-set plans or standard courses of action.

ALIAS was demonstrated to be quickly tailored to new platforms, and installation and removal of the kit did not impact airworthiness on any of the testbed aircraft.

“In Phase 2, we exceeded our original program objectives with two performers, Sikorsky and Aurora Flight Sciences, each of which conducted flight tests on two different aircraft,” said Scott Wierzbanowski, DARPA Program Manager. “In Phase 3, we plan to further enhance ALIAS’ ability to respond to contingencies, decrease pilot workload, and adapt to different missions and aircraft types. We’re particularly interested in exploring intuitive human-machine interface approaches—including using handheld devices—that would allow users to interact with and control the ALIAS system more easily. Ultimately, we want to design for and demonstrate the improved ALIAS system across as many as seven previously untested fixed- and rotary-wing platforms.”

DARPA has decided to partner on Phase 3 of ALIAS with Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company.

NASA, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army, and the U.S. Navy have all expressed interest in ALIAS’ potential capabilities and are providing support to the program. These stakeholders and DARPA intend to continue working closely with the commercial and government aerospace community to identify potential transition opportunities for ALIAS technology.

Continue reading »