Using technology developed for DARPA's Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program, a Sikorsky S-76 commercial helicopter has taken off and flown autonomously from Stratford, Connecticut to Robertson Airport in Plainville, Connecticut, covering a distance of around 30 miles (48 km), before safely landing autonomously. The entire flight was planned, monitored, and executed by an operator using only a tablet device.

Utilizing Sikorsky's MATRIX system like that found in its Optionally Piloted Black Hawk (OPBH) Demonstrator, and equipped with a datalink and multi-spectral sensor package, the flight of the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA) marked the completion of Phase 1 of a US$8 million award from DARPA's ALIAS program, which is aiming to create and deploy greater levels of automation into existing military and commercial aircraft to reduce, or even remove, onboard crew.

Unlike rotor-wing craft specifically built to be pilotless, such as the R-Bat unmanned helicopter, ALIAS technology also looks to take advantage of advances in autonomic controls to work in conjunction with aircrew to reduce pilot workload and improve mission capabilities, while enhancing aircraft safety and reliability.

"With the advances we've made, the capability for safe, unobtrusive optionally piloted flight is here," says Mark Miller, Vice President of Engineering & Technology at Sikorsky. "ALIAS is expanding the role of optionally piloted helicopters for early entry into established aircraft programs. It has the capability of not only reducing aircrew size, but also changing the type and length of training required for safe operation."

Now that Sikorsky has successfully completed Phase 1, a further $9.8 million of DARPA funds will be spent on Phase 2 of the program that will concentrate on continuous evolution of the ALIAS system. This will involve further flight tests, improvements to the human interface, and incorporation of the technology into a greater range of aircraft specifically to show the adaptability and portability of the ALIAS system.

In line with the desire by DARPA to retrofit aircraft with automated systems, Sikorsky is part of a program that aims to develop configurable, drop-in and removable systems that draw on past work in automated systems and newer developments in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

"The current environment limits the creation of new, optionally piloted platforms," said Chris Van Buiten, Vice President of Sikorsky Innovations. "What Sikorsky and DARPA are demonstrating is the successful and affordable integration of advanced technology onto existing legacy aircraft to not only set the stage for autonomous operations down the road, but also to immediately improve aircraft performance, reduce maintenance costs, and increase crew and passenger safety."

The video below shows the autonomous flight of SARA.

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