Published: January 9, 2017 By Nicholas West
As the acceleration of automated technology continues to transform the economy by outsourcing humans to robots, the military continues along the same path. It is a path that was formally laid out as early as 2007 when the Defense Department released its Unmanned Systems Roadmap 2007-2032 (PDF) and followed up with a Roadmap 2013-2038 (PDF). Since that time, we have seen many developments and signposts indicating that autonomous weapons across air, land, and sea will become the foundation for the future of war.
The Pentagon has become interested in a new technology called ALIAS, developed by DARPA, which they believe will make it much easier and cheaper to produce drones in the battlespace. Rather than develop autonomous craft from the ground up, ALIAS is a kit which essentially removes a human pilot and inserts a robotic control mechanism that “quickly connects to an aircraft’s existing mechanical, electrical, and diagnostic systems.” It is a technology that is now progressing from Phase 2 to Phase 3 with a partnership between DARPA and Lockheed Martin company, Sikorsky.
In DARPA’s press release from December 23, 2016, they note their accomplishments in Phase 2 thus far – part of which can be seen in the video demonstration that follows – and outline what is to come in Phase 3.
ALIAS’ Phase 2 accomplishments included:
- Successful flight demonstrations of ALIAS technology installed in two different Cessna 208 Caravan fixed-wing aircraft, a Diamond DA-42 fixed-wing aircraft, and a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter
- Successful ground demonstrations of ALIAS responding to various simulated flight contingency events, such as system failures, that might cause pilots to deviate from pre-set plans or standard courses of action
- Demonstration of quickly tailoring ALIAS to new platforms, and showing that installation and removal of the kit did not impact airworthiness
“In Phase 2, we exceeded our original program objectives with two performers, Sikorsky and Aurora Flight Sciences, each of which conducted flight tests on two different aircraft,” said Scott Wierzbanowski, DARPA program manager. “In Phase 3, we plan to further enhance ALIAS’ ability to respond to contingencies, decrease pilot workload, and adapt to different missions and aircraft types. We’re particularly interested in exploring intuitive human-machine interface approaches—including using handheld devices—that would allow users to interact with and control the ALIAS system more easily. Ultimately, we want to design for and demonstrate the improved ALIAS system across as many as seven previously untested fixed- and rotary-wing platforms.”
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army, and the U.S. Navy have all expressed interest in ALIAS’ potential capabilities and are providing support to the program. These stakeholders and DARPA intend to continue working closely with the commercial and government aerospace community to identify potential transition opportunities for ALIAS technology.