A version of this article appears in the July 7 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

With its charter to look far into the future, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is not used to feeling the commercial world nipping at its heels. But the rate of progress in commercial robots is such that the bar is being raised for the Darpa Robotics Challenge (DRC) to propel human-robot collaboration in hazardous disaster zones to new levels.

Does this rapid advance mean robots could enter the cockpit? Another Darpa program suggests it is at least a possibility—although likely not in the shape of a copilot that resembles Iron Man or the Terminator.

The Automated Labor In-cockpit Automation System (Alias) program does not call for a humanoid robot, but like the Robotics Challenge, it requires a solution that can work in environments engineered for humans. In the DRC, robots must be able to drive a vehicle, open doors and use tools designed for humans. Alias must automate cockpit functions performed by humans, in existing aircraft—and do so in a way that is portable, can be installed or removed within a day with minimal impact on airworthiness, and be adapted to another aircraft type in under a month. Each element involves supervision by human operators, but requires autonomy to handle latency and dropouts in communications.

Robots fared better than expected in the DRC trials last December; the winner completed all eight disaster-response tasks, so the agency is allowing teams more time and resources to prepare for the finals, which have been delayed to June 2015. The prize remains $2 million. 

With the progress in robotics, Darpa is focusing the finals on problems unique to disaster response, where harsh environments will require robots to operate without human physical intervention. They will no longer be connected to power cords, fall arrestors and communications tethers (see photo), but have onboard power and wireless communications, albeit severely degraded. If a robot falls, it must get up unaided. Limited comms bandwidth and extended dropouts require higher levels of autonomy.

But the agency is letting teams take advantage of advances in cloud and crowd-augmented robotics, where systems can exploit information and computing capacity available in the cloud. On-site operators will be provided high-bandwidth links and be allowed to use as much computing power and as many outside experts as they want, but with severely limited communications to the robots themselves.

Eight tasks performed separately in the trials—from driving a vehicle to opening a door to connecting a hose—will have to be performed sequentially in under an hour. One of the tasks will be announced on site. The robots are expected to accomplish all eight tasks four times faster than in the trials, says program manager Gill Pratt.

Alias, meanwhile, aims to demonstrate an automation kit that can be installed to enable an existing aircraft to execute a complete mission autonomously from takeoff to landing, including handling failures, with only high-level intervention from a mission commander, on- or offboard, using a single display screen and voice control for primary flight operations.

In a “seedling” demonstration, a Beechcraft King Air fixed-based simulator was modified with stereo vision to monitor instruments as well as a micro arm to manipulate controls, to enable the operator to interact with the aircraft via a single screen and voice control. The automation system then flew the King Air through simulated missions that involved maneuvering to avoid collision, engine failure, cabin depressurization, autopilot failure and loss of an aileron.

Darpa’s objective is to demonstrate that Alias can reduce the crew in existing aircraft from two pilots to one plus an onboard automation assistant, with a ground operator having the same interface. But as trust in autonomy evolves, the agency believes Alias could lead to completely unmanned ops managed from the ground, or to airborne or ground operators managing formations of automated aircraft. Alias may prove to be more Otto the Autopilot than Robbie the Robot, but it will be a key step toward automated cockpits.