Unmanned Systems

Army Black Hawk helicopters will soon be unmanned

Individual U.S. Army soldiers will soon be able to use rugged tablet technologies to operate unmanned UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter without needing human air crews, according to Sikorsky Innovations developers. 

Lockheed Martin and its Sikorsky Innovations research unit are working to implement the tablet control system along with autonomous capabilities and enhanced safety mechanisms, according to a recent presentation by Chris Van Buiten, Vice President of Sikorsky Innovations.

According to Buiten, autonomy is reinventing the way helicopters are flown, starting with the cockpit. The new optionally-piloted Black Hawk will be operated with “a simple tablet on the pilot’s knee,” said Buiten.

“The tablet is the interface between the human and the autonomy system on board the helicopter and it enables the helicopter to fly all the different trajectory elements and mission elements that a helicopter is capable of,” he explained.

Tablet control was first developed as part of DARPA’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) project, and is sometimes referred to as the “click and fly” system. The rugged tablet itself has touch and voice interface capabilities and is loaded with software applications specially designed to leverage the existing autonomous systems of the helicopter, according to DARPA.

“You put in large, fundamental commands, and it sorts out all the details,” said Buiten. It requires only about ten minutes of training to use and “you can sit onboard with the tablet and fly the helicopter, or you could be off board and fly the helicopter with the tablet.”

A key existing autonomous system that works with the tablet is known as “fly by wire” technology. The traditional flight system required the pilot to directly handle the hydraulic controls, manually moving hardware cables and pulleys to operate the hydraulic or electric actuator, according to Lockheed.

Now, pilots input flight commands into a computer, and software then operates the hydraulic or electric actuator according to those commands. The pilot’s commands are translated into digital signals, rather than into mechanical operations. By eliminating some of the hardware, “fly by wire” technology reduces the weight of the aircraft, allowing for faster speeds and longer flight durations, reports Sikorsky.

Semi and fully autonomous helicopters also have flight safety implications.

“Three quarters of accidents in helicopters today are caused by controlled flight into terrain (CFIT)…we think an autonomy system onboard the helicopter, collaborating with the flight crew, can eliminate the bulk of those accidents,” said Buiten.

CFIT accidents occur when completely functional aircraft are flown into terrain obstacles due to operations in degraded visual environments (DVE). DVEs can be caused by weather, dust, or even bright sunlight.

Eliminating these accidents is one goal of the future vertical lift 2030 program of helicopter initiatives that leverage autonomous systems to develop safer and more effective aircraft.

Autonomous systems like the new tablet-controlled “fly by wire” technology can have automatic safety checks built into the software, as well as systems such as the Terrain Awareness and Warning system (TAWS).

TAWS software uses GPS signals to determine the aircraft’s position and future position along its flight path. Specialized software compares this data to data from a terrain database and warns the pilot of any obstacles in the future flight path, according to Army statements. 

“Often in helicopters, the performance is limited by the emergency procedures it can execute following single engine failure or dual engine failure,” explained Buiten. “The autonomy system can enhance the ability of helicopters to execute those emergency procedures at higher weights than you could with human pilots.”

Another key factor in automating the Black Hawk is computing power. Back in the early 2000s, the super computer necessary to power the autonomous flight systems would have filled the entire Black Hawk cabin, and taken up its entire payload, but now it is the size of a toaster, according to Sikorsky statements.

Video footage of the phase two ALIAS tablet-controlled helicopter test flight was released for the first time this month. According to DARPA, plans for phase three of the project include making the tablet interface even more straightforward for operators and implementing the system across different helicopter platforms.


About the Author

Katherine Owens is a freelance reporter for Defense Systems

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