This April, Sikorsky Aircraft Corp and the US Army used a one-of-a-kind autonomous Black Hawk helicopter to perform an unmanned cargo flight demonstration. Known as the Optionally Piloted Black Hawk (OPBH) Demonstrator, that same chopper has now been enlisted to take the autonomy concept even further. In the new Extended Operational Reach with Autonomous Air and Ground Vehicles project, it will deliver an all-terrain vehicle to a remote site, and that vehicle will then autonomously explore the site from ground level.

The modified aircraft will carry the Land Tamer 6-wheeled vehicle beneath it in a sling, using Sikorsky's autonomous mission manager system to navigate, avoid obstacles, select a good drop-off site, and to take off and land.

Sikorsky's Optionally Piloted Black Hawk Demonstrator

Once the vehicle is lowered down and released, the OPBH will return to its base. The now un-slung Land Tamer will subsequently proceed to drive itself around the rugged environment, using a variety of onboard sensors to check for chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear contamination – not a task that you'd want to risk having humans perform, if such contamination were present.

It will be able to find its way around day or night, using an autonomous driving system developed by Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC). The university previously used elements of the system in its Crusher Unmanned Ground Combat Vehicle and in its unmanned Chevy Tahoe Boss SUV, which dominated the Urban Challenge road race in 2007.

The full demonstration is scheduled to take place next September, all out of direct sight at Sikorsky's test location in Florida. Collaborating with NREC and Sikorsky will be the US Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center.

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