Air Force tested ROBOpilot that turns a manned plane into a self-piloting drone

The US Air Force laboratory conducted the first flight tests of the ROBOpilot system, which can turn virtually any plane into a self-piloting drone, under its Robotic Pilot Unmanned Conversion Program, ROBOpilot.

Developed by the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) in partnership with DZYNE Technologies, the ROBOpilot has successfully made the first flight with no human on board, after being installed in a 1968 Cessna 206 small aircraft. During the flight, the aircraft spent two hours in the air, and then successfully landed at the Dugway military training ground in Utah.

A Cockpit view of ROBOpilot attached to seat rails with no permanent modifications to the aircraft. Image Credit: US Air Force.
A Cockpit view of ROBOpilot attached to seat rails with no permanent modifications to the aircraft. Image Credit: US Air Force.

The system uses sensors, including GPS signals and Inertial Measurement Units to process live data and command the aircraft’s control yoke, rudders, and propulsion systems.

The ROBOpilot system allows you to convert ordinary manned aircraft into a self-driving drone and when necessary, the device can quickly be turned back into a manned one. It boasts 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.

Besides, the system can read the dashboard gauges using several cameras and computer vision algorithms. This allows the system to conduct autonomous take-off, landing, and cruising.

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 Dr. Alok Das, Senior Scientist with AFRL’s Center for Rapid Innovation in a release. “All of this is achieved without making permanent modifications to the aircraft.


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