Describing a helicopter as "optionally piloted" might not do much to comfort those onboard, but this is the future DARPA is aiming for with its Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS). The technology has just been put through another round of testing aboard a modified Sikorsky S-76B helicopter, navigating over a small crowd under what is described as "supervised autonomy."
DARPA and Sikorsky have been testing the ALIAS system over the past couple of years. The technology is essentially a drop-in system that ultimately aims to become a one-size-fits-all solution for automating a variety of aircraft. Once installed, it hooks up with the aircraft's existing mechanical, electrical and diagnostic systems and pilots can engage it through a tablet computer.
The technology has already been tested across more than 300 hours of autonomous flight aboard the modified Sikorsky, but this latest test was a little different. It marks the first time someone other than a trained Sikorsky pilot operated the aircraft, with US Army pilots taking the controls instead.
Rather than months of helicopter pilot training, one operator began to acquaint himself with the tablet interface for the first time only three days before. Over an hour-long demonstration through "supervised autonomy," the aircraft took off, traveled to a destination and landed, while avoiding obstacles along the way.
Rather than full autonomy, the system is designed to carry out routine flight controls for military pilots who may have other things on their mind, much like driver assist technologies can perform certain tasks like highway lane changes and parking.
"Hovering in adverse winds is a task that consumes a human pilot's attention, but automated flight control achieves 'rock steady' precision,'" said Graham Drozeski, the DARPA program manager for ALIAS. "Really, we want the pilot's eyes and mind on the fight rather than holding an altitude. That's the core focus of ALIAS: bringing the latest advances from unmanned aircraft into a piloted aircraft through an interface that provides fluid interaction with the autonomous capabilities."
From here, Sikorsky engineers are looking to build the ALIAS technology into the US Army's Black Hawk helicopter, with testing and flight demonstrations slated for 2019.
"We've chosen the Black Hawk as the platform we want to demonstrate full integration of ALIAS-type capabilities – all the circuit breakers and switches and instruments in the aircraft, so that the capability ALIAS provides to a crew member is really like a co-pilot," said Drozeski. "It can fly routes, plan routes, execute emergency procedures, and do all that perfectly."
You can check out the latest demonstrations in the video below.
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