Soon, flying a Black Hawk helicopter will be as easy as operating a tablet.
That’s because the US Army is equipping its Sikorsky S-76B helicopters with a new set of automation software that could one day limit the need for human pilots.
The Army conducted tests of the new system late last month, successfully lifting off and landing an S-76B commercial helicopter in Virginia.
The Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) is developed by DARPA, the Defense Department’s unit that specializes in developing emerging technologies to be used by the military.
Almost anyone can operate the system with a little training, according to DARPA.
For the demonstration in October, the pilot had only had 45 minutes of training.
The project is part of the Army’s broader Future Vertical Lift program, which is revolutionizing how helicopters are used by the military, ArmyTimes explained.
With ALIAS, pilots operate a helicopter using just a tablet and other control interceptors.
So far, the program has logged more than 300 hours of autonomous flight.
A pilot uses the tablet for things like changing the mission’s destination, while the interceptors control more precise things like moving to the left or the right or up and down.
The controls have proven to be just as precise as if the pilot were physically in the cockpit.
In the test, a novice pilot was able to hover over a field, move out of the way of another vehicle and safely land the helicopter.
The test lasted more than an hour and included ‘realistic missions,’ such as low-level terrain flight, confined area takeoffs and landings, landing zone selection, trajectory planning, and wire-obstacle avoidance, DARPA said.
‘Hovering in adverse winds is a task that consumes a human pilot’s attention, but automated flight control achieves ‘rock steady’ precision,’ said Graham Drozeski, the DARPA program manager for ALIAS, in a statement.
The military hopes that it will allow crewmembers to be more focused on the task at hand.
‘Really, we want the pilot’s eyes and mind on the fight rather than holding an altitude,’ Drozeski said.
‘That’s the core focus of ALIAS: bringing the latest advances from unmanned aircraft into a piloted aircraft through an interface that provides fluid interaction with the autonomous capabilities.’
With a successful test in the books, DARPA will now work to integrate ALIAS into a UH-60 Black Hawk.
They hope to conduct tests and flight demonstrations as soon as 2019.
Ultimately, they believe ALIAS could pave the way for eliminating human pilots altogether in some situations.
The helicopter is able to ‘fly itself and keep it free of obstacles, so the pilot can focus on more of the mission commander type role,’ Lt. Col. Carl Ott, who practiced the ALIAS simulator, said.
‘But the pilot is able to interact with the system to re-suggest, re-route or re-plan on the fly.’