Sikorsky Aircraft is developing a set of hardware and software capabilities to support autonomous flight of unmanned or optionally piloted vertical-lift aircraft. Executives said the goal is to deliver an order of magnitude improvement in the safety and reliability of unmanned aircraft, which experience losses at a rate of once every 1,000 flight hours.
The same Sikorsky Innovations group that developed and flew the X2 compound coaxial helicopter to a speed of 250 knots in September 2010 is behind the so-called “Matrix” program to develop what executives described as a higher level, second generation of autonomous flight capability. The program conducted its first test flight on July 26 of an S-76 fitted with fly-by-wire flight controls and multiple sensors for situational awareness. The S-76 Sikorsky Autonomous Research Aircraft (Sara), which is based at the company’s West Palm Beach, Fla. development flight center, will be joined later this year by a U.S. Army UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter with fly-by-wire flight control, serving as a second testbed. Sikorsky and the Army’s Aviation Applied Technology Directorate have a cooperative research and development agreement to test “unpiloted” autonomous cargo missions.
In a conference call with reporters, Igor Cherepinsky, Sikorsky autonomy chief engineer, said the company is developing software algorithms for “contingency management” and control that would enable a “mission operator” to manage an aircraft instead of a pilot. “They don’t really need to know that it’s a helicopter or a VTOL [vertical takeoff and landing] aircraft,” he said. “To them it’s a tool. What they see in front of them is a ‘mission-centric’ interface. How that gets executed is entirely up to the vehicle.”
Cherepinsky said the level of autonomy that Sikorsky seeks to deliver would represent a next-generation capability exceeding that of the Lockheed Martin/Kaman Aerospace K-Max and the Boeing A160 Hummingbird unmanned helicopters, both developed to carry external sling loads. Sikorsky is funding the Matrix technology demonstration through the end of next year. It will conduct the first unmanned test flight “within a year,” he said.
Executives said the program’s objective is to develop both a set of software applications and a “pallet” of hardware and software systems that could be “ported” or integrated on an existing aircraft or introduced with a new aircraft. An example of an application is the automated approach-to-rig capability Sikorsky already provides in the S-92 for the offshore oil industry. The Matrix technology could be adapted for another manufacturer’s aircraft and for commercial as well as military aircraft.
“What we’re developing is an architecture and a suite of software-based capabilities that are platform-agnostic,” said Teresa Carleton, Sikorsky vice president of mission system integration. “This capability can be inserted into any of our platforms, commercial or military, and we envision that it could be adopted by other platforms as well. It’s really aimed at bringing intelligence and increased reliability to whatever platform it executes on.”