Last month, an agency of the U.s. Defense Department, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), along with Sikorsky Aircraft and the U.S. Army demonstrated supervised autonomy, in which a crew with minimal training took a commercial S-76B helicopter for a ride that mostly operated it with a tablet computer. The manifestation was the latest deed from DARPA’s ALIAS (Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System), which could soon be setting up shop in the Army’s Black Hawks.
In the exhibition at Fort Eustis, VA., the helicopter manned by Army pilots lifted off and flew to a nearby field, where it landed after adjusting its flight to evade a vehicle on the ground. It then lifted off again and hovered in an immobile position for several minutes. Chief of Flight Test for the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center’s Aviation Development Directorate, Lt. Col. Carl Ott stated that the Army refers to this as Mission Adaptive Autonomy. It’s there when the pilot requires the aircraft to fly itself and keep it free of blockages, so the pilot can focus on more of the mission commander type role. But the pilot is able to interact with the system to re-suggest, re-plan or re-route on the fly.
Subsequently, DARPA is planning to test the system on the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter that is akin to the S-76B, is made by Sikorsky. The Black Hawk, in different variants, has been the Army’s front-line helicopter since 1979. According to the Army, currently, they have 2,100 of them in its inventory, and additional 1,200 are operated by 30 partner and allied nations. With additional upgrades planned, the Army anticipates the Black Hawk to be around until at least 2,054. So it looks like a logical platform for next-generation flight technology.
DARPA’s program manager for ALIAS, Graham Drozeski pointed out that they’ve selected the Black Hawk as the platform to demonstrate full integration of ALIAS-type capabilities, all the circuit breakers and switches and instruments in the aircraft so that the capability ALIAS offers to a crew member is really like a copilot. It can fly routes, plan routes, execute emergency procedures, and do all that perfectly.