US researchers prepare to move autonomy simulations to flight test


Engineers from NASA, Sikorsky and DARPA are partnering to develop automation software for aircraft that they will test with two modified helicopters as surrogate air taxis.

The researchers and pilots at the Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California have been running the software through simulations of air-to-air encounters, enabling a variety of conflict scenarios to test algorithms using customized test-tablets with scripted flight paths.

Lead software developer Ethan Williams said, “The software design begins with conceptualizing what future Advanced Air Mobility vehicle operations and flight behavior scenarios might look like.”

“We then refine the software requirements under development, so it behaves as expected enabling the proposed Advanced Air Mobility air-taxi operations. The simulation using the tablets and ground control room displays help to identify potential issues prior to actual flight testing.”

The team will evaluate how the software enables pilots using the tablet to initiate specific autonomous flight rules that would be common for air taxis in a highly complex, dynamic, and dense Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) airspace.

NASA pilot Scott Howe said, “Given the extensive ground training familiarization, desktop and cockpit simulation exercises we have run, test aircrew are comfortable using the software and tablets.”

“We’ve proven the software interacts well with the aircraft flight control systems and is very capable of safely executing multiple precise software-controlled profiles in a single flight,” he said.

When the project reaches the flight testing stage, NASA researchers will use the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft, a modified S-76B helicopter, and the company’s Optionally Piloted Vehicle Black Hawk helicopter as air-taxi surrogates. Their tests will evaluate the NASA-designed automation software and flight control tablets in several Advanced Air Mobility operations flight scenarios.

The two aircraft will autonomously fly with NASA test pilots and Sikorsky safety pilots onboard to test scenarios and capture the data from precise flight scenarios as the pilots interact with the research tablets to select their desired avoidance maneuvers from a set of software-provided options.

Future Advanced Air Mobility operations may include flight in very dense traffic environments. These new routes must include safe and reliable separation from every other aircraft in the area. NASA is helping to create those capabilities exploring safe procedures to pave the way for air taxi operations in the national air space.

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