What’s the future of air travel? Watch this robot learn to fly and land a 737

We’ve got self-driving cars, so surely the next logical step is self-flying airplanes? That is what a collaboration between the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and aeronautics research company Aurora Flight Sciences has gotten one step closer to, courtesy of the latest breakthrough from its Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) technology.

This week, DARPA and Aurora proudly announced that their ALIAS robotic arm has managed to successfully fly and land a Boeing 737. Well, in a simulation involving a real cockpit, at least.

The feat took place at U.S. Department of Transportation’s John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It represented the biggest challenge yet for ALIAS, which has previously carried out similar flying demos on smaller aircraft such as the single-engine Cessna Caravan, capable of transporting 14 passengers at a time.

robot arm flies boeing 747 1494957372 alias b737 simulator

“Aurora has been developing the ALIAS automation technologies for over two years,” Jessica Duda, Humans and Autonomy Group Lead at Aurora Flight Sciences, told Digital Trends. “Installing the system into the Boeing 737 provided us an opportunity to extend the capabilities of the robotic system to interact directly with an existing highly capable autopilot and autoland system.”

While the Boeing 737 has long had an autopilot system, allowing for the plane’s trajectory to be controlled without requiring constant “hands-on” control from the pilot, Duda explained that ALIAS is something else entirely. “ALIAS as a whole is much more capable than an autopilot, as it includes procedures tracking and monitoring, contingency identification and response, and intelligent interaction with the onboard pilot,” she said.

Given that autonomous drones have (no pun intended) taken off in a big way in the past few years, a future filled with robot-controlled planes is clearly on the horizon. While the technology is not going to be arriving imminently on commercial airliners, Duda said the ALIAS team is definitely hoping to take their research to the next level in the form of an airborne, real world test.

“We are looking at a variety of applications for the integrated system and its enabling technologies, including commercial customers,” she said.

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