Darpa is taking advantage of industry efforts already underway to get an early start on its program to demonstrate a drop-in kit to automate existing aircraft, reducing the onboard crew required, and that can be removed and transferred to a different aircraft type.

Aurora Flight Sciences, Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky have been awarded contracts for Phase 1 of the Aircrew Labor In-cockpit Automation Systems (Alias) program. Aurora has already flown the Centaur optionally piloted light aircraft, while Sikorsky is flying an optionally piloted S-76 helicopter testbed under the company-funded Matrix program to develop autonomy technology that can be certified.

"Because we want to develop a drop-in system for existing aircraft, we chose performers who could conduct actual ground and flight demonstrations at the start of the program instead of at the end," says Dan Patt, Darpa program manager. A lot of Phase 1 hardware is ready to test, "which we hope will steepen our learning curve and mature the capability faster," he says.

Phase 1 is focused on developing "minimally invasive interfaces" between the automation system and existing aircraft; acquiring knowledge of operations to allow rapid adaptation of Alias across different aircraft, and human-machine interfaces that enable high-level supervision rather than requiring a pilot’s attention to lower-level fight tasks.

Aurora has developed a removable kit that replaces one of the pilot seats in a Diamond DA42 twin-engine light aircraft and actuates the flight controls. This converts the aircraft to optionally piloted or unmanned operation. Sikorsky has added fly-by-wire servos to the S-76 control system to enable autonomous operation of the helicopter.