Cessna-Turned-Drone Foreshadows Future Unmanned Opportunities

A 1968 Cessna 206 with ROBOpilot installed preparing for engine start on the runway at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. Courtesy photo via USAF.

A recent successful Air Force Research Laboratory flight demonstration brings the service closer to a future that could rely more heavily on machines than human pilots.

For the first time Aug. 9, AFRL and DZYNE Technologies flew a real plane—a 1968 Cessna 206—equipped with ROBOpilot, a system that can temporarily convert a manned aircraft into a robotically flown version. The test took place at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah.

“ROBOpilot interacts with an aircraft the same way as a human pilot would,” the Air Force said in an Aug. 15 release. “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. At the same time, the system uses sensors, like GPS and an Inertial Measurement Unit, for situational awareness and information gathering. A computer analyzes these details to make decisions on how to best control the flight.”

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Rear view of the installed ROBOpilot system during preflight for first flight. Photo: Courtesy via USAF.

ROBOpilot is installed by replacing the pilot’s seat with a frame that contains commercially produced actuators, electronics, cameras, power systems, and a robotic arm. The system opens new, less costly opportunities to turn manned aircraft into drones in combat situations where the Air Force may not want to send human pilots. It also offers the option to take the human out of the cockpit in other assets like cargo planes to free people up for other work.

“ROBOpilot offers the benefits of unmanned operations without the complexity and upfront cost associated with the development of new unmanned vehicles,” Alok Das, a senior scientist with AFRL’s Center for Rapid Innovation, said in the release.

AFRL and DZYNE created and tested ROBOpilot over the past year under a Small Business Innovation Research contract. The system has simulated takeoffs, mission navigation, and landings in a Federal Aviation Administration-certified trainer.

The Air Force did not say what ROBOpilot’s next steps are or whether it plans to test the system on an in-service platform.