Autonomous aircraft, though all but unheard of just a few short decades ago, have changed the face of warfare as we know it. From reconnaissance and intelligence gathering missions to complex strikes against ground targets and even a recent successful air-to-air engagement in a training environment, it’s become clear: the skies over battlespaces of the future will be chock full of self-piloting aircraft.

But despite the level of autonomy many of these advanced drone platforms exhibit, warfare is still a long way off from eliminating the need for operators in the field. War will always require “boots on the ground,” and until scientists find a way to mount those boots on a capable and reliable infantry drone platform, that’s going to mean putting Americans in harm’s way. That isn’t to say that autonomous systems can’t play a vital role in supporting the those troops once they enter into the battlespace.

DARPA’s new invisible auto-pilot system, dubbed ALIAS for Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System, takes the job of directly controlling the aircraft out of the pilot’s hands, freeing pilots up for other important war zone tasks like coordinating with nearby friendly forces, assessing threats, or any other responsibility that could be better accomplished with the pilot’s full attention. The ALIAS system handles the flying, but the pilot can quickly re-route or re-plan the helicopter’s flight path by way of a tablet-based interface.

DARPA’s next goal is to install the system aboard a UH-60 Blackhawk (Lockheed Martin)

While the most complex or dangerous helicopter flying tasks may still fall on the shoulders of well trained military aviators, the ALIAS system could manage monotonous tasks like resupply flights in low threat environments; allowing the pilots on board the opportunity to rest or even sleep while ferrying passengers or goods to and from locations in uncontested airspace.