While autonomous aircraft are now a well established part of military operations, there are some areas where “pilot optional” is still very much synonymous with “cutting edge.” Case in point is Optionally Piloted Black Hawk (OPBH) Demonstrator developed by the Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. In cooperation with the US Army, Sikorsky demonstrated the helicopter's capabilities for the first time in an autonomous cargo delivery exercise on March 11 at Sikorsky’s Development Flight Center.
The Sikorsky Black Hawk has been the mainstay of the US armed forces since it went into service in 1979 and over the years has been adapted to a wide range of missions, but one constant is that it’s needed a pilot at the controls. True, autopilots have been around for many decades, but pilot optional technology goes a step further and brings some obvious advantages. It would allow routine flights, such as ferrying aircraft, to be conducted without needing a pilot on board, or it could expand the capabilities of a manned aircraft because pilot boredom and fatigue is much less of a factor while the computers take over routine duties.
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Unfortunately, not all aircraft and not all missions are easy to place in the pilot optional basket. Helicopters in general can be tricky and the Black Hawk is a special challenge because its function as a go-anywhere-do-anything workhorse means that it has to operate in some pretty hairy conditions.
Aimed at providing the Army with a an autonomous cargo delivery capability, the OPBH demonstration involved flying a fully autonomous cargo mission from takeoff, to picking up a cargo, to dropping it off at its destination, then returning for another load while under the supervision of a man-portable Ground Control Station (GCS).
It’s the latest milestone in Sikorsky’s Manned/Unmanned Resupply Aerial Lifter (MURAL) Program which began in 2007. MURAL includes such partners as the US Army Aviation Development Directorate (ADD), the U.S. Army Utility Helicopters Project Office (UH PO) as well as Sikorsky. Using a pair of UH-60MU Black Hawk helicopters as test beds, its goal is to produce pilot optional cargo aircraft.
According to Sikorsky, a major factor in achieving this goal is the company’s Matrix Technology, which provides and fixed wing vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) with intelligent flight systems that can carry out complex missions at low, obstacle-strewn altitudes with a minimum of human supervision. The ultimate goal is to give aircraft like the Black Hawk much more autonomy, letting the pilot act as a coordinator rather than being constantly on the stick and allowing them to leave the cockpit during the run up to a potentially dangerous mission. This would not only allow for more mission flexibility and increase the Black Hawk’s mission capabilities, but would also increase very basic things like flying range by reducing pilot fatigue.
“The autonomous Black Hawk helicopter provides the commander with the flexibility to determine crewed or un-crewed operations, increasing sorties while maintaining crew rest requirements," says Mark Miller, Sikorsky Vice President of Research & Engineering. "This allows the crew to focus on the more ‘sensitive’ operations, and leaves the critical resupply missions for autonomous operations without increasing fleet size or mix.”