Sikorsky demonstrates autonomous systems with 30-mile helicopter flight

Sikorsky has undertaken a 30-mile autonomous flight using a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter that was controlled by a tablet device.

The flight is said to complete Phase 1 of an $8m award from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program.

Sikorsky’s ALIAS system directed the helicopter flight demonstration from the company’s Stratford, Connecticut, facility to Robertson Airport in Plainville, Connecticut with the operator planning and executing each phase of an autonomous mission with a tablet device.

During the demonstration, a ground station crew monitored the progress of the ALIAS-enabled Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA), which is an S-76 commercial helicopter.

DARPA’s ALIAS program is developing and implementing new levels of automation into existing military and commercial aircraft, enabling them to operate with reduced on-board crew. Sikorsky said it utilised its Matrix Technology to develop, test and field hardware and software systems that improve piloted and ‘optionally piloted’ vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft. To date, Sikorsky has installed MATRIX on SARA and a BLACK HAWK helicopter.

“With the advances we’ve made, the capability for safe, unobtrusive optionally piloted flight is here,” said Mark Miller, vice president of engineering and 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.”

With work on ALIAS Phase 1 complete, Sikorsky has begun Phase 2 of the program. DARPA awarded Sikorsky a $10m modification for the competition’s second phase, which focuses on continued development of the initial ALIAS system with additional flight tests, enhancements to the human interface and transition to additional aircraft.

“The current environment limits the creation of new, optionally piloted platforms. 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,” said Chris Van Buiten, Vice President of Sikorsky Innovations.