U.S. Army, Sikorsky Demonstrate Autonomous Black Hawk

 - April 22, 2014, 1:36 PM
Testers operated the Manned/Unmanned Resupply Aerial Lifter (Mural) using a man-portable ground control station. (Photo: Sikorsky Aircraft)

Sikorsky Aircraft completed the first flight of an optionally piloted Black Hawk demonstrator last month in a joint effort with the U.S. Army, the company said on April 21. The Black Hawk serves as a second testbed (joining an S-76) for Sikorsky’s Matrix research program to develop and field systems for autonomous vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.

Sikorsky conducted the first flight of the Manned/Unmanned Resupply Aerial Lifter (Mural)—an Army UH-60MU Black Hawk—on March 11 at its development flight center in West Palm Beach, Fla. It flew “a full concept demonstration” of a cargo resupply mission three days later.

Testers flew the Black Hawk, which had safety pilots on board, using a man-portable ground control station and line-of-sight datalink. “We have demonstrated execution of an autonomous cargo mission, where the operator was not required to have any aviation knowledge,” Sikorsky said in response to an AIN query. “The operator was using the vehicle as a crane to pick up the load and entered a simple destination to send the vehicle to the destination. At the destination, it was received by another operator, who maneuvered the load to a desired location and the load was released. At this point the aircraft was returned to base.”

Under the Matrix program, the manufacturer completed the first flight of an S-76 Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (Sara) on July 26 last year and “within a month” flew the helicopter “with the autonomy system engaged.” Application of Matrix technology on the Mural helicopter demonstrates how the system can be adapted to other platforms, Sikorsky said. The Mural program is a cooperative effort with the Army’s Utility Helicopters Program Office and Aviation Development Directorate at Ft. Rucker, Ala. The parties signed a cooperative research and development agreement last year to apply technology Sikorsky has been developing since 2007. The Army’s program office is providing two upgraded UH-60MUs with fly-by-wire flight controls.

Also this month, the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) said it completed two autonomous flight demonstrations at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., under the five-year, $98 million Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (Aacus) program, which involves contractors Lockheed Martin and Aurora Flight Sciences. The Navy sees the sensor and software package as a potential solution for both autonomous, unmanned flight and obstacle avoidance during bad weather conditions.

An ONR video shows optionally manned K-Max and MH-6 Little Bird helicopters flying what the office describes as laser-defined flight paths. “What we’re developing here is a system that responds to a request in the field for supplies, develops its own route, flies there by itself without any oversight, comes in, selects its own landing site and lands. This is a truly autonomous design,” said Max Snell, Aacus program manager. Marines with no previous experience made resupply requests using handheld tablet devices.