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Development & Transportation

A Pittsburgh Robotics Company Is Developing Autonomous Aircrafts For The Air Force

Vadim Ghirda
A US Airforce plane taxies on the runway after landing at the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey. A Pittsburgh company is contracting with the US Air Force to create robots to fly planes.

Pittsburgh-based RE2 Robotics penned a contract this week with the U.S. Air Force to create robotic pilots for military planes.

The team won’t be retrofitting planes like Uber has done with its fleet of autonomous cars. Instead, it will expand on auto-pilot technology to develop drop-in robotic systems. Principle scientist Andrew Mor said the robots will replace a seat in the cockpit and would operate an aircraft without a crew on board.

“We’re not trying to invent the wheel at this point,” he said. “We’re trying to take known components, known technology and integrate them in a way that hasn’t been done before, into a complete system that can fly an aircraft.”

The system is named the “Common Aircraft Retrofit for Novel Autonomous Control." The company said the aircrafts won’t have to be modified, which will reduce costs.

The concept is not intended to be used in commercial airspace. If the Air Force decides to more forward, Mor said it will be used within the confines of a military air force base. The robot pilots will take over during potentially dangerous situations.

“It’s pretty much anywhere you would not necessarily want to have a manned pilot in the cockpit,” he said. “You could be doing anything where you’d want to have an aircraft in the sky for a long period of time will be longer than a standard that a normal pilot could be capable of supporting.” 

In one year, the team will have to demonstrate the working system in a simulator. Then, Mor said, the Air Force will determine if it should move forward with installing the system in an aircraft.

Jorgen Pedersen, president and CEO of RE2 Robotics, said Wednesday that the company would be incorporating existing technologies with the company’s expertise in, “applique systems, vision processing algorithms and decision making.”

“By creating a drop-in robotic pilot, we have the ability to insert autonomy into and expand the capabilities of not only traditionally manned air vehicles, but ground and underwater vehicles as well,” he said. “This application will open up a whole new market for our mobile robotic manipulator systems.”

Boeing has also started similar ventures in robot-operated planes.