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DARPA is working on new concepts for robot co-pilot program.[Representational Image] In Picture: Cockpit interior of the first-delivery Boeing 787 Dreamliner to Japan Airlines (JAL) is seen during a delivery ceremony at Paine Field in Everett, Washington 26 March 2012.Reuters

To cater to pilot shortage rampant in the US military, Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency or more widely known as DARPA is reported to be working on two new concepts that could help solve such scarcity of pilots.

DARPA's concepts would be of two-fold help, one to autonomously operate aircraft and other to offer advice to the human co-pilot.

Currently, the two companies that are testing these two systems include Aurora Flight Sciences and Sikorksy, Defence News reported.

The program in question is Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS), a system that can trim the number of manned crew onboard. Jean Charles-Lede, program manager of DARPA's tactical technology program office, says that the aim is to go "from two pilots down to one, and then possibly down to zero."

The report noted that Aurora and Sikorsky's ALIAS systems work in different ways.

Aurora's system includes a robotic arm that can be used to physically fly the plane, thus letting the human pilot to concentrate on other complex problems requiring human troubleshooting. The machine is non-invasive and takes the "space" of a second human pilot, according to Jessica Duda, Aurora's ALIAS program manager.

The system also has a perception system, which has machine vision cameras that gather information that a human pilot does when he sees the aircraft's displays. Further, the ALIAS software is able to make decisions based on what it observes following breaking of the data.

The report said that the system is able to "visually see and physically touch the instruments in the flight deck, it doesn't need to delve into to any proprietary avionics information."

Aurora's system was first tested on a fixed-wing Cessna Caravan on 17 October when it flew with the fully integrated system. The future test will be done aboard a Diamond DA-42 and the Bell UH-1 helicopter.

Meanwhile, the ALIAS system by Sikorsky is said to be more customisable to the customer's concept of operation and could even eventually replace human pilots entirely, according to Igor Cherepinsky, the company's director of autonomy programs.

Similar to Aurora's system, the one by Sikorsky can physically manipulate existing controls on the aircraft using small actuating elements that are installed under the instrument panel and floors.

The ALIAS system from Sikorsky does not have robotic arms and thus allows for the deployment of a two-person crew. The human pilot on the other hand can execute work related to selecting the flight plan or reviewing other data through a tablet interface, the report said.

The Sikorsky system was tested in October on a fixed-wing Cesna Caravan and S-76 helicopter.

These two systems can not only be used on military planes, but also for commercial setup too. We will have to however wait for the acceptance and clearance of the tests. The report opined that it might not be long before one human operator could manage several autonomously piloted aircraft.

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