Aircraft

Autonomous Sikorsky helicopter makes piloting optional

Autonomous Sikorsky helicopter...
DARPA and Sikorsky have been testing out the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System over the past couple of years
DARPA and Sikorsky have been testing out the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System over the past couple of years
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From here, Sikorsky engineers are looking to build the ALIAS technology into the US Army’s Black Hawk helicopter
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From here, Sikorsky engineers are looking to build the ALIAS technology into the US Army’s Black Hawk helicopter
DARPA and Sikorsky have been testing out the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System over the past couple of years
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DARPA and Sikorsky have been testing out the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System over the past couple of years

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.

From here, Sikorsky engineers are looking to build the ALIAS technology into the US Army’s Black Hawk helicopter
From here, Sikorsky engineers are looking to build the ALIAS technology into the US Army’s Black Hawk helicopter

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.

Source: Lockheed Martin, DARPA

US Army Pilot Tests ALIAS’ Autonomy Capabilities in Demonstration Flight

2 comments
guzmanchinky
As a pilot I would LOVE to have this kind of system on board to handle the flying during times of intense navigation or communication. The biggest cause of aviation crashes seems to be pilot overload/distraction, especially in a helicopter.
davidmhoffman
These systems will be useful only under good conditions. For example: IF the landing pad or runway is cratered from bombing the system will NOT be able to use the kind of judgement human pilots use to pick out an acceptable landing location among the craters and debris. The system still relies on certain elements in the local aviation ecosystem to be in near perfect condition if it is to successfully complete certain flight operations. These types of systems do NOT have the human abilities to use predictive judgement. They are similar to basic speed control systems in automobiles. A human driver can see a hill ahead and decide to adjust gear selection and accelerator pedal position to keep the vehicle's speed constant on the hill prior to actually climbing the hill. A basic speed control would respond to the loss of speed only after the vehicle is trying to climb the hill and has suffered a significant loss of speed.