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Autonomous Robot for Unmanned Air Vehicle Operations




The technology within this topic is restricted under the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR), 22 CFR Parts 120-130, which controls the export and import of defense-related material and services, including export of sensitive technical data, or the Export Administration Regulation (EAR), 15 CFR Parts 730-774, which controls dual use items. Offerors must disclose any proposed use of foreign nationals (FNs), their country(ies) of origin, the type of visa or work permit possessed, and the statement of work (SOW) tasks intended for accomplishment by the FN(s) in accordance with section 5.4.c.(8) of the solicitation and within the AF Component-specific instructions. Offerors are advised foreign nationals proposed to perform on this topic may be restricted due to the technical data under US Export Control Laws. Please direct questions to the AF SBIR/STTR Contracting Officer, Ms. Gail Nyikon,

OBJECTIVE: Develop a drop-in robotic system or device to rapidly convert a variety of traditionally manned aircraft to robotically piloted, autonomous aircraft. This robotic system will operate the aircraft (e.g. observe gauges, operate controls, etc.) similar to a human pilot and will not require any modifications to the aircraft.

DESCRIPTION: Automation and autonomy have broad value to the Department of Defense (DoD), with the potential to; (1) enhance system performance of existing platforms, (2) reduce costs, and (3) enable new missions and capabilities, especially with reduced human exposure to dangerous or life threatening situations. This project leverages existing aviation assets and advances in vehicle automation technologies to develop a drop-in robotic system or device to rapidly convert a variety of traditionally manned aircraft to robotically piloted, autonomous aircraft. This robotic system will operate the aircraft (e.g. observe gauges, operate controls, etc.) similar to a human pilot and will not require any modifications to the aircraft.

Considerable advances have been made in aircraft automation systems over the past 50 years. These advances have enabled reduced pilot workload, improved mission prosecution, and improved flight safety. Similarly, unmanned aircraft have developed and leveraged new automation systems to permit operation via remote crew. However, large aircraft are capital-intensive developments generally subject to rigorous safety and reliability standards. The expense of new developments limits the rate at which new automation or autonomy capabilities can be developed, tested, and fielded.

Unmanned flight operations utilizing traditionally manned airplanes offer an increase in mission planning flexibility for a large set of missions and reduced cost while leveraging existing traditionally manned airframes. Non-invasive approaches to robotically piloted aircraft using existing commercial technology and components offer the benefits of unmanned operations without the complexity and upfront cost associated with the development of new unmanned vehicles. Such a system will have the ability to automatically pilot an aircraft using only the gauges and cockpit controls available to a human pilot thus eliminating custom design and integration costs. Mechanical manipulation of existing control effectors and optical sensing of gauges are possible with commercially available products and offer reduced system setup timelines. Non-invasive installations offer the benefit of rapid conversion between manned and unmanned modes while maintaining the airframe’s integrity required for subsequent manned operations. Unmanned, low cost cargo transportation, resupply, refueling, and ISR missions are envisioned applications of this technology.

To operate various aircraft, the system will have to perform four essential sets of tasks: (A) receive/select appropriate control settings, limitations, and parameters necessary to successfully operate a selected aircraft, (B) interface with the control stick/yoke, pedals, throttle, etc. to “fly the plane”, (C) monitor the aircraft state and systems (e.g. flight parameters (i.e. airspeed, altitude, attitude, etc.) propulsion, hydraulics, electrical, etc.) via the gauges and audio alarms, and (D) control the systems via knobs, switches, valves, buttons, etc. in the cockpit.

Some key technical elements for consideration include vision-based cockpit sensing and perception, physical manipulation, procedural verification, algorithmic implementation, flexible flight control techniques, optimized feasible trajectory computation, rule-based routing suggestions, vehicle or health management systems, and consumer-technology based human interfaces. This list is by no means exhaustive and is not intended to be prescriptive.

PHASE I: Proposal must show: (A) demonstrated feasibility of system architecture, (B) demonstrated capability of humanoid-like robotic manipulation, and (C) demonstrated capability of vision-based recognition.

FEASIBILITY DOCUMENTATION: Offerors interested in submitting a Direct to Phase II proposal in response to this topic must provide documentation to substantiate that the scientific and technical merit and feasibility described has been met and describes the potential commercial applications. The documentation provided must substantiate that the proposer has developed a preliminary understanding of the technology to be applied in their Phase II proposal to meet the objectives of this topic. Documentation should include all relevant information including, but not limited to: technical reports, test data, prototype designs/models, and performance goals/results. Read and follow all of the feasibility documentation portions of the Air Force 16.2 Instructions. The Air Force will not evaluate the offeror’s related DP2 proposal where it determines that the offeror has failed to demonstrate the scientific and technical merit and feasibility of the Phase I project.

PHASE II: The contractor will develop and demonstrate a robotic system that can perform the following; (A) ability to interface with and operate existing aircraft control systems across multiple aircraft types, (B) ability to capture knowledge about the aircraft’s state to include both nominal and off-nominal states, and (C) ability to be programmed to accommodate various aircraft’s flight properties and limitations.

All of this will be done without making any modifications to the aircraft. Installation of the robot in the cockpit should be with little or no hard attachment to either the flight controls, avionics, or power system, i.e., completely independent of the aircraft's systems.

The robot should be capable of performing all activities/procedures in an FAA practical test standards, with possible waivers allowed (e.g. radio calls). At a minimum, the robotic system will operate the aircraft to autonomously taxi, take off, follow a predefined flight plan, and land.

This capability will be demonstrated on an FAA Level C or D cockpit flight simulator for a relatively "simple' class of aircraft (e.g. Caravan or King Air).

PHASE III DUAL USE APPLICATIONS: The contractor will pursue commercialization of the various technologies developed in Phase II for potential government applications. There are potential commercial applications in a wide range of diverse fields that include cargo, resupply, refueling, airdrop, or ISR type missions.


  • Heejin Jeong, Jeongwoon Kim, and David Hyunchul Shim. "Development of an Optionally Piloted Vehicle using a Humanoid Robot", 52nd Aerospace Sciences Meeting, AIAA SciTech, (AIAA 2014-1165).
  • Stefan Kohlbrecher, David C. Conner, Alberto Romay, Felipe Bacim, Doug A. Bowman, and Oskar von Stryk. “Overview of Team ViGIR’s Approach to the Virtual Robotics Challenge”, 2013 IEEE International Symposium on Safety, Security, and Rescue Robotics (SSRR), IEEE, 21-26 Oct 2013.
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  • Christopher Rasmussen, Kiwon Sohn, Qiaosong Wang, Paul Oh, “Perception and Control Strategies for Driving Utility Vehicles with a Humanoid Robot”, International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS 2014), September 14-18, 2014, 2014 IEEE/RSJ pp 973-980.

KEYWORDS: Robotics, automation, autonomous operation, flight controls, unmanned air vehicle, unmanned aircraft system, vision based sensing, remotely piloted vehicle, aircraft conversion, drone

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