Piasecki Aircraft and Carnegie Mellon University have successfully flight tested a new navigation and sensor package on an unmanned Boeing AH-6 Little Bird helicopter that allows it to autonomously avoid dynamic, low-altitude obstacles, select suitable unmapped landing sites, and land using self-generated approach paths.
The Army-funded system was developed to allow unmanned helicopters to evacuate or resupply soldiers from combat zones. However, it could also be used as a pilot aid for military and civilian helicopters, particularly EMS units, to avoid power lines and safely select unimproved landing sites near a given set of coordinates, even in low-visibility conditions including brown-outs. During tests the system was able to identify landing sites in cluttered environments, detect and maneuver around obstacles up to 60 feet high at speeds greater than 20 knots, and to detect power lines over desert terrain.
The system–an extrapolation of technology Carnegie Mellon first developed for land vehicles–uses inertial sensing and an advanced laser scanner that can look forward and down paired with mapping and obstacle-avoidance software that build 3-D maps of the ground and can find obstacles, including people, vegetation and chain link fences, in the helicopter’s path.
“It is a real milestone in development,” said Piasecki Aircraft president John Piasecki. Piasecki said the program’s next step “is to expand the project into a more comprehensive autonomy, mature the level of autonomy, and get it integrated into a number of other autonomous platforms as we move forward.”
He said that included small Vtol UAVs and even larger helicopters. “There’s a plethora of different applications of the technology. Enabling a helicopter or a vertical-lift platform to have self-awareness in a near-earth environment unleashes a whole bunch of different mission capabilities that are currently done by manned platforms at great risk or are not possible by unmanned platforms,” he said.
“On the military side of things there has been a huge awakening to the survivability of rotorcraft. A lot of the data in Iraq and Afghanistan show that a major contributor to the loss of life in those theaters has been as a result of helicopters. It’s understandable. The helicopters are the primary mobility platform for U.S. forces. What is not so obvious is that a majority of the loss of life is attributable to controlled flight into terrain. Often in a combat environment your attention is focused on things other than flying–such as your adversary firing lethal weapons,” Piasecki said, and the results can be deadly.
Getting the program to the next level will require a combination of more government and private-sector funding, he said. Piasecki has provided all private funding to date, “but we would seek to have strategic partners as part of the development effort,” he added.
Piasecki said the system has significant potential as a pilot aid in manned helicopters, particularly for EMS, but “we’ve got to get the weight and the cost of the system down.”
He declined to reveal by how much.
“Suffice it to say there is a whole family of different platforms this technology is needed on, and the ability of a very small Vtol UAV to handle this kind of a technology, as opposed to a fully manned aircraft, is a real challenge. We need to tailor the package so that it is suitable for smaller UAV systems” as well as full-size helicopters. “The functionality is similar, you just need to be able to get it into a smaller package,” he said.