Saturday, May 25, 2024

DARPA completes first flight of Black Hawk helicopter with no crew onboard

The DARPA Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program has completed the first-ever flight of a UH-60 Alpha-model Black Hawk helicopter without anyone onboard.

Lockheed Martin-owned Sikorsky and DARPA have been working on ALIAS program for around six years. But, in earlier flights, there was always a pilot on board as a backup to cater to failure.

During the recent flight, the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter flew entirely unmanned for 30-minutes over the U.S. Army installation at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, on February 5th. An additional 10-minute uninhabited flight was also conducted on February 7th. The aircraft performed pre-flight checks before takeoff and then flew through a simulated LiDAR system depicting the dense and complex Manhattan skyline. The unmanned 6,350 kg aircraft responded autonomously to the simulated skyscrapers, weaving through Manhattan, and then landed by itself.

The Black Hawk aircraft was retrofitted with Sikorsky MATRIX autonomy technology, which is the key component of ALIAS responsible for converting a conventional aircraft into an optionally piloted vehicle (OPV). It can change the way aviators and aircrews execute their missions by providing assistance when flying with limited visibility or without communications.

ALIAS is a flexible, extensible automation architecture for existing manned aircraft that enables safe reduced crew operations, which facilitates the addition of high levels of automation into existing aircraft. It also provides a platform for integrating additional automation or autonomy capabilities tailored for specific missions.

“With reduced workloads, pilots can focus on mission management instead of the mechanics,” said Stuart Young, program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “This unique combination of autonomy software and hardware will make flying both smarter and safer.”

ALIAS aims to support the execution of an entire mission from takeoff to landing, including autonomously handling contingency events such as aircraft system failures. Easy-to-use interfaces facilitate supervisor-ALIAS interaction. “With ALIAS, the Army will have much more operational flexibility,” said Young. “This includes the ability to operate aircraft at all times of the day or night, with and without pilots, and in a variety of difficult conditions, such as contested, congested, and degraded visual environments.”