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Air Platforms

US Air Force performs first flight of ROBOpilot unmanned air platform

19 August 2019
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A 1968 Cessna 206 with ROBOpilot installed preparing for engine start on the runway at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. Source: US Air Force

The US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and DZYNE Technologies on 9 August performed a two-hour initial flight of the Robotic Pilot Unmanned Conversion Program (ROBOpilot), according to a 15 August AFRL statement.

Dr Alok Das, AFRL Center for Rapid Innovation senior scientist, said in the AFRL statement that the ROBOpilot achieves the ability to rapidly and affordably convert a general aviation aircraft such as a Cessna or a Piper into an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), fly a mission autonomously, and then return back to its original piloted configuration. This is all without making permanent modifications to the aircraft.

For example, the system grabs the yoke, pushes on the rudders and brakes, controls the throttle, flips the appropriate switches, and reads the dashboard gauges the same way a pilot does. Simultaneously, the system uses sensors, such as a Global Positioning System (GPS) and an internal measurement unit (IMU), for situational awareness and information gathering. A computer analyses these details to make decisions on how to best control the flight.

The ROBOpilot also has a simple installation process. Users remove the pilot's seat and install a frame in its place, which contains all the equipment necessary to control the aircraft including actuators, electronics, cameras, power systems, and a robotic arm.

US Air Force (USAF) spokesperson Daryl Mayer on 19 August did not respond when asked how long it took to install the ROBOpilot, but instead said since this was the initial installation of the ROBOpilot, it took longer than subsequent installations would take. He also said the USAF has not yet conducted the kinds of testing required to determine how long subsequent installations would take.

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