A Robot Just Passed A Pilot’s Test, Paving The Way For Unmanned Airplanes

front of airplane
Arie Wubben / Unsplash

Uber and Waymo might be dominating the conversation of the future of travel automation, but the Air Force quietly won a huge victory last week, when their ROBOpilot bot passed the FAA’s pilot test and completed its first flight. According to New Scientist, the robot successfully flew a two-hour itinerary at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.

Airplanes already rely heavily on technology. Autopilot is nearly ubiquitous for all commercial flights, as it is required by most international aviation regulations for planes with more than twenty seats. Though autopilot controls the plane’s operations — including navigation, altitude, speed, and engine thrust — pilots still are in charge of take off 100 percent of the time and landings 99 percent of the time, per CNBC.

However, the new ROBOpilot is an incredible advancement in aviation technology. It is not a computer mode or program, but rather a real-life robot that acts like a human pilot would. It has robotic arms to handle controls in the cockpit and has computerized vision to read the plane’s instruments and data.

“It looks like an impressive achievement in terms of robotics,” said Louise Dennis of the University of Liverpool. “Unlike an autopilot which has direct access to the controls and sensors, the robot is in the place of a human pilot and has to physically work the controls and reads the dials.”

The ROBOpilot is also removable from the cockpit, so a plane can be used by both bot and human alike. It is also substantially cheaper than refitting planes into drones, which can tally up to a million dollars per plane.

“Imagine being able to rapidly and affordably convert a general aviation aircraft, like a Cessna or piper, into an unmanned aerial vehicle, having it fly a mission autonomously, and then returning it back to its original manned configuration,” said CRI senior scientist Dr. Alok Das, who helped develop the technology (via New Scientist).

“ROBOpilot offers the benefits of unmanned operations without the complexity and upfront cost associated with the development of new unmanned vehicles,” he added.

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Though researchers behind the ROBOpilot have said that it is not ready to start flying commercial flights, they hope that the new advancement can soon change the landscape of flying for cargo planes and intelligence or reconnaissance missions.

airplane in sky
  Nick Morales / Unsplash

This is not the first time that a robot has been inside the cockpit. Both the United States and South Korea have previously developed bots to fly planes under projects ALIAS and Pibot, respectively. However, neither of these had the ability to fly a full-size plane, like the Cessna operated by the ROBOpilot.