On a clear morning in early summer, John Langford and a test pilot climbed into a twin-engine plane at Manassas (Va.) Airport. The pilot taxied down the runway, lifted off and headed west. As soon as the plane reached cruising altitude, Langford, sitting in the back seat, pushed a button, and a robot pilot took over from the human one.
"It was an amazing feeling," said Langford, the chief executive of Aurora Flight Sciences in Manassas and a pioneer in the development of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. "It was a lot of fun. You are looking over the robot and thinking, 'I hope all the engineers did their jobs right.' "
The left side of the aircraft's cockpit looks pretty typical, with a bucket seat, joystick and airspeed and engine pressure displays. But on the right side, the seat has been replaced with a collection of bundled wires and mechanical arms connected to the dashboard. This robotic device is operated remotely either from the ground or the back seat.
Langford calls this craft the Centaur, a play on its half-human, half-robot makeup; a team of engineers at Aurora has been building it for the past decade. They hope it will someday fly scientific missions across Greenland, ferry passengers around the United States and perhaps even carry patients to the hospital when no human pilots are available.
"You use either a keyboard or mouse to set the heading, altitude and airspeed," Langford explained.
The Centaur is one of several dozen nonmilitary UAVs, better known as drones, that have been taking to the skies in the past few years. Many have been developed by military aerospace contractors. The Federal Aviation Administration has granted permits to 46 federal, local or state agencies and universities to operate these vehicles, which go by such catchy names as Cobra, Kestrel, Sparrow and Skate.