US Army flight tests autonomous helicopter

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Pilots from the US Army have successfully demonstrated several autonomous functions of an optionally-piloted helicopter for the first time.

The series of flights by the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA), a modified S-76B commercial helicopter, at the company’s Stratford, Connecticut Flight Test Center demonstrated functions such as autonomous landing and take-off and obstacle avoidance

The SARA optionally-piloted helicopter has been built by Sikorsky and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as a technology demonstrator.

Chris Van Buiten, vice president of Sikorsky Innovations said, “Future vertical lift aircraft will require robust autonomous and optimally-piloted systems to complete missions and improve safety.

“We could not be more thrilled to welcome Army aviators to the cockpit. These aviators experienced the same technology that we are installing and testing on a Black Hawk that will take its first flight over the next several months.”

SARA has been flown for more than 300 hours and during the latest test flights was operated at different times by pilots on board, on the ground and by the Sikorsky-developed Matrix Technology autonomous software and hardware.

The helicopter performed an automated take-off and landing and demonstrated its obstacle detect and avoidance system, a LIDAR and camera system, successfully avoiding wires, towers and moving vehicles

It also used sensors to automatically determine a safe landing zone and executed periods of autonomous contour flight by flying low to the ground and behind trees. A video of the test flight can be viewed below.

The flights were part of the US Army, DARPA and Sikorsky’s project to develop a tailorable “autonomy kit” that can be installed on both fixed wing airplanes and helicopters called the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS).

Over the next few months, Sikorsky plans to fly a Black Hawk helicopter equipped with ALIAS for the first time. Mark Ward, Sikorsky’s Chief Pilot at its Stratford, Connecticut Flight Test Center said, “We’re demonstrating a certifiable autonomy solution that is going to drastically change the way pilots fly.

“We’re confident that Matrix Technology will allow pilots to focus on their missions. This technology will ultimately decrease instances of the number one cause of helicopter crashes: – controlled flight into terrain.”

Sikorsky describes its approach as “pilot directed autonomy” that aids safety and reliability with two, one or no aircrew.

Commercial efforts to develop helicopters with autonomous features are also gathering pace. USA-based autonomous aircraft technology company Xwing is making progress in a NASA-funded program on how to integrate drones into the national airspace and in a project with Bell to develop an unmanned cargo aircraft.

An interview with Marc Piette, founder and CEO of Xwing, covering the technical challenges and potential benefits of the work, can be read here.

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Ben has worked all of his career as a journalist and now editor, covering almost all aspects of technology, engineering and industry. In the last 16 years he has written on subjects from nuclear submarines and autonomous cars to future design and manufacturing technologies and commercial aviation. Latterly editor of a leading engineering magazine, he brings an eye for a great story and lots of experience to the team.

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