Eurocopter performed a demonstration flight of an “optionally piloted vehicle” (OPV) version of the EC145 in late April, with the goal of eventually employing any of its models in unmanned operations such as automated surveillance and cargo hauling. Secret flight-testing began two weeks earlier at Istres air force base in France. The project’s coordination team is based at Eurocopter’s research and development center in Donauwörth, Germany, where the first flights, with a monitoring pilot, took place.
As part of the public demonstration, the ground station controller uploaded a four-dimensional flight plan and the aircraft made an automatic takeoff. The EC145 then flew the traffic pattern via multiple waypoints and performed a mid-route hover to deploy a load from the external sling. The ground station controller provided flight control inputs to position the EC145 over the drop point. He then released the load. The return route segment represented “a typical observation mission,” followed by an automatic landing.
The system included a failsafe feature: automatic hover-to-land capability in case of major degradation. The flight took place close to urban areas and with no safety pilot on board. “This confirms the maturity of the system we have developed,” said a spokeswoman.
The demonstrator is a testbed EC145 with an enhanced dual-duplex four-axis autopilot and “the latest navigation systems.” In addition, the helicopter is fitted with a “plug-in” OPV avionics rack behind the pilot seats. The prototype rack weighed approximately 150 pounds, but this will be reduced for operational systems, according to Eurocopter.
Onboard cameras provide visibility for the ground crew. The helicopter also features an external gimbaled camera, for infrared and daylight mission imaging.
With two switches in the center console, the helicopter can be operated either via its controls or via a ground control station. In the latter arrangement, inputs from a joystick and also flight plans can be transferred to the helicopter via datalink, a spokeswoman explained.
The environment and the mission determine the number of operators in the ground station, said the spokeswoman. For the flight demonstration at Istres, the ground crew consisted of a flight-test pilot (who was responsible for the flight), a flight-test engineer and a ground control engineer.