If the US Army’s most recent autonomous flight experiment is anything to go by, this might occur sooner than we think. Last year, the Army partnered with Sikorsky (a Lockheed Martin subsidiary) and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to retrofit a Black Hawk helicopter with autonomous flight technology. February saw the helicopter complete its first successful test flight without a pilot. The test flight didn’t simulate any life-saving operations, however, meaning its real-life practicality was still unconfirmed.
In mid-October, the Army successfully completed a series of autonomous resupply and rescue missions affirming the Black Hawk’s value in dangerous conditions. One was a long endurance medical resupply mission, in which the helicopter independently flew 83 miles over Yuma, Arizona while carrying 500 pounds of real and simulated human blood supply. During a portion of the 50-minute flight, the Black Hawk descended to 200 feet above ground to mask its signature, meanwhile maintaining 100 knots (115 miles per hour) airspeed.
A second test mission required the aircraft to lift off with a 2,600-pound payload attached to the end of a 40-foot sling. At the end of the 30-minute, 100-knot flight, a ground operator used radio and a tablet to direct the Black Hawk to lower its payload to the ground. The operator then commanded the Black Hawk to pick up a simulated casualty nearby. Crews loaded a manikin patient into the aircraft’s cabin, after which the operator initiated a short autonomous flight to a field hospital. A built-in health monitoring system relayed the manikin’s vitals to medical personnel on the ground during transport.
The Black Hawk’s autonomous flight capabilities are made possible via Matrix, Sikorsky’s “drop-in, removable kit” that can be retrofitted to existing helicopters and winged aircraft. Matrix makes the aircraft pilot-optional, allowing for autonomous flight in a pinch (such as in dangerous battlespace or limited-visibility environments) and piloted missions under safer circumstances. Despite compatibility with ground-based operators, Matrix allows the aircraft’s flight computer to create a flight plan all on its own using destination location, distance, topography, and other high-level information.
“During PC22 Technology Gateway, we showed how the optionally piloted Black Hawk helicopter can be flown by human pilots, who then land the aircraft and simply flip a switch to activate flight with zero pilots,” said Igor Cherepinsky, Sikorsky Innovations director, in a statement. “We believe Matrix Technology is ready now for transition to the Army as they look to modernize the enduring helicopter fleet.”