The U.S. Army has flight-tested the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA), a Sikorsky S-76B modified as an optionally piloted vehicle (OPV) demonstrator. This marked the first time that non-Sikorsky pilots had operated the SARA as an OPV aircraft. For the Army’s mission software flight demonstration, the SARA aircraft was controlled from the ground and was also "flown" by onboard pilots using a tablet and mouse-like inceptor. The flights were undertaken as part of a collaboration between the U.S. Army’s Aviation Development Directorate, Sikorsky, and DARPA (the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).
The SARA aircraft is fitted with fly-by-wire flight controls and has multiple sensors for enhanced situational awareness—whether it is being flown autonomously, remotely, or in “optimally piloted” modes with one or two pilots. The testbed was developed as part of DARPA’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program, using Sikorsky’s MATRIX technology—an integrated autonomous software and hardware solution that has been described as a tailorable drop-in, removable and platform-agnostic autonomy kit. MATRIX consists of a “pallet” of hardware and software systems that could be “ported” or integrated onto an existing aircraft or introduced on a new design.
Sikorsky is developing contingency-management software algorithms that promise to allow an operator to manage the aircraft through a “mission-centric” interface, treating the vehicle as a highly automated tool, rather than as an aircraft that needs to be piloted. The MATRIX systems permit automated takeoff and landing, obstacle avoidance, tracking moving objects on the water, automatic landing zone selection and contour flight, and allow the aircraft to be flown safely, reliably, and affordably during autonomous or unmanned operations, even in obstacle-rich, low-altitude environments or in uncertain, degraded conditions. The system uses its real-time sensors—including Lidar—to sense and avoid obstacles and other aircraft, rather than relying on mapping, which may be unreliable or out of date.
The system can also aid pilot or crew decision-making during manned operations, reducing pilot workload, augmenting mission performance, and improving aircraft safety and reliability. Military helicopter pilots frequently experience very high crew workloads, and this can lead to a loss of situational awareness, and even to accidents. Adding a modest degree of autonomy can dramatically reduce workload and improve mission performance and safety. MATRIX can manage airspeed, altitude, and position even in the worst conditions. It promises to “see” things that the human pilot may not, and to process information and react, freeing the human pilot from routine mechanistic tasks to focus instead on the mission and to concentrate on higher-level decision-making.
Sikorsky has demonstrated its MATRIX Technology in a Cessna Caravan as well as the S-76 and is working on integrating the technology onto an optionally piloted UH-60M Black Hawk. Sikorsky test pilot Mark Ward has predicted that MATRIX will provide a certifiable autonomy solution that will drastically change the way pilots fly, and that will reduce mishaps and fatalities caused by pilot error, including the principal cause of helicopter crashes—controlled flight into terrain.