Concept for DARPA's Transformer (TX) programDARPA’s autonomous flying vehicle program, called Transformer, or TX, has just gone autonomous.

Carnegie Mellon’s robotics department, already a main TX contractor, has been given the assignment to let the vehicle fly itself.

“The TX is all about flexibility of movement and key to that concept is the idea that the vehicle could be operated by a soldier without pilot training,” says Carnegie Mellon’s Sanjiv Singh in a press release. “In practical terms, that means the vehicle will need to be able to fly itself, or to fly with only minimal input from the operator.  And this means that the vehicle has to be continuously aware of its environment and be able to automatically react in response to what it perceives.”

Carnegie Mellon won first place in DARPA’s Urban Challenge autonomous vehicle race in 2007 and this year demoed the world’s most capable autonomous helicopter, which I wrote about for Popular Mechanics.

Autopilots for cars and helicopters will transform both modes of transportation in the near future, steering distracted drivers and pilots operating in dangerous conditions away from danger.

Accident avoidance tech is already making its way into production automobiles. Helicopters are badly in need of the kind of autopilot technology already common in fixed wing craft. DARPA investment in these areas will save lives on the homefront as well as in the field.