Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company, and DARPA conducted three flights at U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground to demonstrate resupply and casualty evacuation by an autonomous utility helicopter. The optionally piloted UH-60A Black Hawk aircraft retrofitted with a full-authority fly-by-wire flight control system used Sikorsky’s MATRIX™ technology autonomy system to perform the missions. [Photos by Sikorsky]
If forward forces are to win in future large-scale contested battlespace, they’ll need reliable replenishment of supplies.
That task will be given to utility helicopters flown with or without pilots on board.
Depending on the mission, food, bullets and medical supplies could all be transported into dangerous airspace by Black Hawk and other helicopters flown autonomously.
And these same uncrewed aircraft could also evacuate battlefield casualties if necessary.
Demonstrating autonomy resupply
Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) successfully demonstrated these autonomous mission scenarios to the U.S. Army in mid-October 2022.
Three demonstration flights totaling 2.4 hours were performed at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona as part of the U.S. Army’s Project Convergence 2022 (PC22) Technology Gateway exercise.
“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.
“With no humans on board, the aircraft flew at 100 knots, to deliver a large quantity of blood product, an external cargo load, and rescue a casualty.”
Sikorsky’s MATRIX™ technology is the enabling technology for optionally piloted flight, which includes the option for no pilots on board. MATRIX forms the core of DARPA’s ALIAS (Aircrew Labor In-cockpit Automation System) project, an ongoing collaboration between Sikorsky and DARPA since 2015.
Long endurance medical resupply
- Loaded with 14 boxes containing 400 units (500 lbs./226 kg) of real and simulated blood rigged to the cabin floor, the aircraft flew 83 miles (133 km).
- During the 50-minute flight, the aircraft descended as low as 200 feet (61 m) above ground level through valley terrain to mask its signature while maintaining 100 knots airspeed.
A long-endurance mission over U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground demonstrated the optionally piloted Black Hawk helicopter flying without pilots or crew. Inside the cabin were 400 units of real and simulated blood packed in ice.
External cargo delivery and casualty evacuation (combined mission flight)
- The Black Hawk aircraft lifted off with a 2,600 lbs. (1179 kg) external load attached to a 40-ft (12 m) sling suspended from the cargo hook
- The aircraft flew at 100 knots for 30 minutes to the designated landing site.
- On approach, Sikorsky demonstrated how a ground operator with a secure radio and tablet can take control of the autonomous aircraft. Ground control of the helicopter simulated a scenario in which a threat needed to be neutralized near the landing site.
- The ground operator commanded the aircraft to release its sling load safely onto the ground, then directed the helicopter to land at a nearby site to evacuate a casualty.
- A manikin on a litter was quickly loaded into the cabin, and the ground operator commanded the aircraft to fly to a field hospital.
- During the flight, the BATDOK health status monitoring system relayed the manikin patient’s vitals to ground-based medical personnel via the helicopter’s communications system.
While transporting an external load, the autonomous Black Hawk helicopter was redirected by a ground controller located at the landing site to release its load, and then land to evacuate a casualty.
A casualty was loaded aboard the uncrewed Black Hawk aircraft. The BATDOK tablet (next to the manikin’s head) monitored and relayed in real time the manikin patient’s health status to a ground station via the aircraft’s comms system.
The Black Hawk aircraft flown for the autonomous demonstrations is optionally piloted — meaning the same aircraft can be flown by two pilots, one pilot, or no pilots, depending on the mission requirements.
Unlike other uninhabited aircraft that rely on a ground-based pilot to fly the aircraft, the MATRIX system gives full control to the aircraft’s flight computer, which compiles a flight plan based on high level goal inputs, such as destination location, distance, and topography.
Ahead of Ready
The autonomous flight demonstrations with the optionally piloted Black Hawk helicopter will inform U.S. Army leadership how its existing and future fleet of piloted utility helicopters could one day also fly uncrewed to resupply forward forces in contested battlespace or limited visibility environments.
“We believe MATRIX Technology is ready now for transition to the Army as they look to modernize the enduring helicopter fleet, and acquire Future Vertical Lift aircraft,” said Cherepinsky.
“In addition to increasing flight safety and reliability, MATRIX enables survivability in high tempo, high threat 21st Century Security environments where Black Hawks operate today, and next generation aircraft could operate in the future.”