Welcome to our new robot pilot overlords

I’m intrigued by DARPA’s new efforts to demonstrate a combination of hardware and software that can be installed in any aircraft, converting it into a pilotless drone.

The goal of DARPA’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program was to develop a drop-in, removable kit that could be easily installed into airplanes and helicopters so that the robot pilot can operate the controls and monitor the gauges. On December 23, the agency announced it had concluded the second phase of development after completing a fight demonstration in which the ALIAS kit was used to fly a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter, a Diamond DA-42 aircraft, and two Cessna 208 Caravan aircrafts. The tests also included demonstrations of the robots reacting to simulated system failures that would have forced a human pilot to abandon a flight path.

. . .

According to DARPA program manager Scott Wierzbanowski, the final phase of development aims to upgrade ALIAS so it works in seven other types of aircrafts, both fixed- and rotary-wing.

. . .

NASA, the Air Force, the Army, and the Navy are all interested in adopting ALIAS technology, according to DARPA. Since it only took half a year to develop the initial system, it might not be long before robots are able to fly most military aircrafts.

There’s more at the link.

To me, the most telling comment is on DARPA’s Web page about the project:  “ALIAS envisions a tailorable, drop-in, removable kit that would promote the addition of high levels of automation into existing aircraft, enabling operation with reduced onboard crew.”  Given the shortage of commercial pilots (which is expected to get worse), it’s not inconceivable that this program could lead to the replacement of one of the two pilots required on most commercial flights by an automated assistant, halving the number of pilots required.  That would probably eliminate the pilot shortage almost overnight.  Given a few more years of experience with such hardware and software, it’s probable that human pilots might be replaced entirely by automated systems on at least freight flights.  There’s already a proposal to have one pilot fly multiple aircraft by means of data links.  This sort of project can only enhance that.

According to the New York Times, NASA is already working on such plans.

NASA is exploring a related possibility: moving the co-pilot out of the cockpit on commercial flights, and instead using a single remote operator to serve as co-pilot for multiple aircraft.

In this scenario, a ground controller might operate as a dispatcher managing a dozen or more flights simultaneously. It would be possible for the ground controller to “beam” into individual planes when needed and to land a plane remotely in the event that the pilot became incapacitated — or worse.

Again, more at the link.

I wonder what this means for the future of private aviation?  What if the powers that be, distressed at the higher accident rate among small aircraft and their pilots, mandate that all such planes must be fitted with such automated control systems?  Big Brother will effectively be able to ground all private air transport at the touch of a button.



  1. Someone at FAA is going to have to bless this box and it's use in a type certificated aircraft in regular (not experimental operation. I would not hold my breath until it can be used in this situation under Part 91, let alone Part 121.

  2. I have a bit more faith in DARPA's ability to engineer new technology than that of NASA; continuing with Snoggeramus' thought (above), might this initiative be part of NASA's "Muslim Outreach"?

  3. But what about the dog?

    (Old pilot automation joke: These new planes are so automated that they can fly themselves. For emergencies, each cockpit also has a pilot and a dog. The pilot's job is to take over from the robot if there is a problem. The dog's job is to bite the pilot if he tries to touch anything!)

  4. Payoff question: will YOU purchase a ticket for your children to fly cross-country on a plane piloted by a robot using Wi-Fi?


  5. I wouldn't worry about it anytime soon – there's a rather wide gap between what tech is allowed on a military aircraft and what's allowed on civilian aircraft.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *