A new US Air Force kit that can turn a conventional aircraft into a robotic one has completed its maiden flight. Developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and DZYNE Technologies Incorporated as part of the Robotic Pilot Unmanned Conversion Program, the ROBOpilot made its first two-hour flight on August 9 at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah after being installed in a 1968 Cessna 206 small aircraft.
With modern autopilots, even small modern aircraft already have surprising ability to fly themselves, but there’s a big difference between maintaining a course and actually flying an aircraft the way a human pilot does. From the opposite direction, autonomous drones are becoming increasingly sophisticated, but these tend to be highly specialized and expensive.
Funded by AFRL’s CRI Small Business Innovative Research project, ROBOpilot is designed to make these two paths meet in the middle by replacing the pilot seat (and pilot) with a kit consisting of all the actuators, electronics, cameras, and power systems needed to fly a conventional aircraft, plus a robotic arm for the manual tasks. In this way, ROBOpliot can operate the yoke, rudder, brakes, throttle, and switches while reading the dashboard gauges and displays like a human pilot.