MIGHTY TACTICAL

Army pilots share their cockpit with autonomous bots

Sikorsky allowed Army pilots to try out SARA, an optionally-piloted helicopter that can either do some impressive flying on its own or be piloted by humans. Now, the goal is to get the tech ready for implantation in Army UH-60s and other helicopters.

Recently, Army pilots got to tool around with an autonomous helicopter kit that could one day make all Army rotorcraft capable of autonomous flight, completing tasks as varied as take off and landing, flying across the ground and behind trees, and even selecting its own landing zone and landing in it with just a simple command.


The pilots were given access to the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA), an optionally-piloted helicopter filled with tech being developed under a DARPA grant. The idea isn't to create a fleet of ghost helicopters that can fly all on their own; it's to give pilots the ability to let go of the stick for a few minutes and concentrate on other tasks.

According to a DARPA press release,

During the hour-long flight demonstration, [Lt. Col. Carl Ott, chief of Flight Test for the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center's Aviation Development Directorate] interfaced with the autonomous capabilities of the system to conduct a series of realistic missions, including aircrew tasks such as low-level terrain flight, confined area takeoffs and landings, landing zone selection, trajectory planning, and wire-obstacle avoidance.

Lockheed Martin' MATRIX Technology is created to help pilots by allowing them to focus on complex tasks while the helicopter pilots itself.

(DARPA)

"The Army refers to this as Mission Adaptive Autonomy. It's there when the pilot needs the aircraft to fly itself and keep it free of obstacles, 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-route or re-plan on the fly," said Ott.

But SARA has a pretty robust bag of tricks. When pilots call on it, the helicopter can land or take off on its own, select its own safe landing zones using LIDAR, avoid obstacles including wires and moving vehicles, and can even fly across the ground and behind obstructions, like trees, to hide itself.

A U.S. Army National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter lands during training with U.S. Marines.

(U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Rachel K. Young)

Of course, the Army needs the technology from SARA to be ported over to Army helicopters, like the UH-60 Blackhawk, and that's coming in the next few months, according to Sikorsky. The package, known as MATRIX Technology, should theoretically work on any aircraft, and porting it to rotary aircraft should be fairly easy.

"We're demonstrating a certifiable autonomy solution that is going to drastically change the way pilots fly," said Mark Ward, Sikorsky Chief Pilot, Stratford, Conn. Flight Test Center. "We're confident that MATRIX Technology will allow pilots to focus on their missions. This technology will ultimately decrease instances of the number one cause of helicopter crashes: Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT)."

An optionally piloted UH-1H helicopter drops off supplies during a May 2018 exercise at Twentynine Palms, California.

(Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory Matt Lyman)​

The Marine Corps has been doing its own experiments with autonomous rotary flight. Their primary program is the Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System on the Bell UH-1H platform, which can take off, fly, land, plan its route, and select landing sites on its own using LiDAR. So, similar to the MATRIX platform.

AACUS comes from Aurora, a Boeing subsidiary, and has already been successfully installed on Bell 206 and Boeing AH-6 helicopters. It uses off-the-shelf hardware components combined with the proprietary algorithms. One big advantage of AACUS is that infantrymen on the ground can directly request flights to their location without necessarily having to route it through a pilot.

As helicopters are cherished assets during a real fight, though, it's almost certain that requests for aviation will require an officer signing off, whether it's an AACUS or a MATRIX bird.