Sikorsky Proceeds with Sensor-in-the-loop Autonomous Flights

 - May 4, 2014, 2:25 AM
Sikorsky has fitted an S-76 with a lidar and various cameras for expanded operational automation.

Sikorsky is proceeding with the second phase of flight-testing for its Sara demonstrator, an S-76 fitted with special equipment to expand operational automation.

Late last year the aircraft completed a fully autonomous mission that demonstrated Sara can take off from an airport, fly a pattern and return to the airport without any special sensors in the loop. “With the launch of phase two, Sara’s ‘got eyes’,” said Igor Cherepinsky, chief engineer for Sikorsky’s autonomy program. “The sensors allow Sara to fly at full speed, avoid obstacles, select landing zones and do other tasks that are perceptually intensive.”

Now fitted under the fuselage nose section is a lidar and “a variety of camera-type devices looking at different wavelengths,” Cherepinsky told AIN. Without elaborating on how the sensors function, he emphasized that the goal is to see through all obscurants, such as clouds. The other appurtenances on the fuselage are for datalink, he said.

The Sara S-76–which is fitted with fly-by-wire controls–has demonstrated autonomous site selection and landing with this new sensor equipment. The mission operator specifies goals (without waypoints) and the software program generates the flight path. Among the parameters it can factor in are wind and vehicle constraints. For example, in the event cargo needs to be picked up, the system can make sure the landing site will not be 200 feet higher than the location of the load. It then presents the proposed flight path to the operator, who can approve or disapprove it.

Sikorsky plans to conduct a full flight, from takeoff to landing, with sensors in the loop in the coming weeks. For this year the Matrix program calls for demonstrating safe flight in obstacle-rich environments, shipboard and brownout condition landings. “Beyond 2014, we’ll continue to tackle new challenges,” said Chris Van Buiten, v-p of Sikorsky Innovations.

The production hardware will be no larger than conventional avionics, Cherepinsky predicts, and close in price to a high-end autopilot. One of the fundamental challenges of the Matrix program, he concluded, is to find “a path to qualification or certification.”