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Modified Black Hawk Helicopter Flies by Itself for the First Time

Autonomous helicopters are one step closer to becoming part of the military’s arsenal. Recently, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Lockheed Martin subsidiary Sikorsky have flown a modified UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter with no pilot on board. The helicopter successfully demonstrated its ability to adapt to different settings.
DARPA and Sikorsky test autonomous Black Hawk helicopter 6 photos
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On February 5th, the iconic Black Hawk outfitted with DARPA’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program completed its first flight without anyone onboard. The agency describes its program as “a flexible, extensible automation architecture” that can be implemented into current manned aircraft.

It serves as a foundation for adding autonomy capabilities tailored to specific missions. The core of the ALIAS is represented by Sikorsky MATRIX autonomous technologies, which can help aviators when flying in low visibility or in case of communication failure. Combining the two, this tech is expected to “make flying both smarter and safer.”

On Saturday morning, the modified aircraft started spinning its blades, taking to the sky with no humans on board. A simulated obstacle avoidance scenario showed that the Black Hawk maintained an average speed and altitude while avoiding imagined buildings. It was also capable of replanning its route in real-time.

The helicopter then performed a series of autonomous maneuvers before landing. In total, the aircraft stayed in the air for half an hour over the U.S. Army installation at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

A second flight test was also conducted on February 7th. However, details about this recent test were not disclosed. What we do know is that DARPA plans to conduct the first flight of a fly-by-wire variant of the UH-60M Black Hawk next month at Fort Eustis, Virginia. The agency will equip the aircraft with the same autonomous system.

The ALIAS program is expected to offer incredible advantages to the U.S. Army. “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,” said Stuart Young, program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office.

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