HAI Convention News

Sikorsky Moves to Phase 3 of DARPA Cockpit Automation Program

 - March 2, 2017, 10:00 AM
The S-76 Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft equipped with ‘Matrix’ autonomy technology performed at Griffiss International Airport in Rome, N.Y., in November 2016. (Photo: Bill Carey)

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded Sikorsky (Booth 8114) a contract to carry out a third phase of its program to develop an Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS), the Lockheed Martin subsidiary announced in January.

The drop-in, kit-based system provides advanced automation to an existing aircraft; the aim of the ALIAS program is to reduce pilot workload while enhancing mission performance and safety. In addition to assisting with decision making on a manned aircraft, DARPA and industry officials see the technology being applied to control unmanned aircraft systems.   

Through ALIAS, pilots can fly the aircraft using a tablet computer that recognizes familiar prompts such as swiping and tapping. Sikorsky’s demonstration system, which connects to existing mechanical, electrical and diagnostic systems, fits under the cabin floor and within the airframe of both airplanes and helicopters.

“Pilots can choose to engage autonomy to help operate, dynamically plan, adjust and/or execute a complete spectrum of responsibilities, allowing the operators to better focus on the designated mission at hand,” said Mark Miller, Sikorsky vice president of engineering and technology. “Our autonomy capabilities will help pilots in high-workload and degraded-visual environments, ultimately increasing safety and efficiency.”

Over the first two phases of the DARPA program, Sikorsky integrated its “Matrix” automation technology on an S-76 testbed called the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft and also on a single-engine Cessna Caravan turboprop. Aurora Flight Sciences, of Manassas, Va., tested an autonomy system on a Cessna Caravan and a twin-engine Diamond DA42 piston airplane.

The program conducted ground demonstrations of an ALIAS system’s response to simulated flight contingencies, such as system failures, that might cause pilots to deviate from pre-set or standard courses of action. Testers also demonstrated the ability to install and remove an ALIAS kit without affecting airworthiness of the host aircraft.

Phase 3 of the program will further test the ability of an ALIAS system to respond to contingency situations, decrease pilot workload and adapt to different missions and aircraft types, said Scott Wierzbanowski, DARPA program manager.

“We’re particularly interested in exploring intuitive human-machine interface approaches—including using handheld devices—that would allow users to interact with and control the ALIAS system more easily,” Wierzbanowski added. “Ultimately, we want to design for and demonstrate the improved ALIAS system across as many as seven previously untested fixed- and rotary-wing platforms.”

NASA and the U.S. Air Force, Army and Navy are providing support to the ALIAS program. They plan to continue participating “to identify potential transition opportunities” for the technology, DARPA said.