Researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology (KAIST) are developing a humanoid robot pilot that can fly an aircraft without modifying the cockpit. The robot – called “Pibot” (PIlot+roBOT) – is a direct outcome from the “Key Unmanned Systems Technology with Minimal Invasion” project.
Previously, two methods of developing an unmanned aircraft were proposed: 1) developing a dedicated unmanned aircraft with customized airplane design and built-in actuators. This solution is considered to be time-consuming and expensive, and would require an entirely new design and certification process; and 2) automating an existing airplane with additional flight control systems. This would require a vast amount of modification of the flight controls. Dr. Hyunchul Shim at the KAIST Institute for Robotics (KIR) has proposed the Pibot project as an alternative approach. With this solution, the cockpit does not require any modification at all. The team has already carried out a study to validate the feasibility of the proposed system by putting the robot into a series of flight routines in a full-scale aircraft cockpit.
Pibot consists of the humanoid robot body and the software to control the aircraft. It understands the airplane’s states – such as position, velocity, attitude, and the various actions required. In a typical sequence, the robot starts with turning on the electrical system, starting the engine, taxiing, taking off, climbing, cruising, descending, approaching and landing, and post-landing procedures. Shim’s team states that PIBOT can handle all of these sequences with greater accuracy and repeatability beyond that of a human pilot. PIBOT receives the information of the host airplane through the network, unlike a human pilot who has to interact with the instrument panel only. PIBOT can also send the commands over the network if allowed, but the normal point of access would be conventional mechanical interfaces, such as control knobs and sticks.
While we may be a long way from replacing human pilots entirely, a number of applications for Pibot are under consideration: it could be used to perform test flights for the development of new aircraft; in wartime, a robot pilot fly outdated aircrafts for the purpose of reconnaissance over enemy territory; and in airplanes that do not have automated flight control, a PIBOT could substitute for the co-pilot, which would be economically advantageous.