Researchers flew a pilotless Black Hawk helicopter around Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Saturday, Feb. 5, in the first unmanned flight recorded for an experimental Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program.
The modified Black Hawk had previously made a series of flights with safety pilots on board, Stuart Young, program manager of DARPA’s tactical technology office, said. But on Saturday, the pilots stayed on the ground while the helicopter executed its first fully “uninhabited” flight, Young said in a press conference Tuesday.
“We’re really excited about the capabilities that we’ve demonstrated,” Young said.
The first test flight lasted only about 10 minutes and included takeoff, simple forward flight, pedal turns, and a landing. Crews launched a second test flight later in the day, which Igor Cherepinsky, director of Sikorsky Innovations, described as a simulated mission. For 30 minutes, the modified UH-60A Black Hawk flew over Fort Campbell, but the computer controlling the helicopter thought it was flying through downtown Manhattan.
“The aircraft was avoiding, essentially, buildings in real time,” Cherepinsky said.
The Black Hawk climbed to about 4,000 feet and flew faster than 100 knots, he added. Crews conducted a third uninhabited flight Monday.
The Black Hawk was outfitted with a Sikorsky system, dubbed Matrix, that forms the backbone of the unmanned system, which DARPA calls the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program.
The UH-60A is an original Black Hawk, having entered service in 1978. The Army now has a fleet of nearly 2,200 Black Hawks.
ALIAS is meant to allow the aircraft to fly autonomously from takeoff to landing, even if confronted with emergencies such as aircraft system failures.
DARPA has conducted several tests of what it calls the optionally piloted vehicle (OPV) since the craft first took flight in 2019. In fall 2021, in southern Arizona, the Army used the ALIAS program during its Project Convergence exercises at Yuma Proving Grounds. In those flights, pilots were always in the cockpit to supervise the autonomous flight, while the Black Hawk was controlled from a tablet, similarly to the way drones are controlled. In March 2021, Lockheed Martin released a video showing the system in action.
But the Fort Campbell tests were the first time Army officials completely removed the pilots from the cockpit.
The goal is not to have empty helicopters flying around, according to DARPA. Rather, the technology could act as a co-pilot, decreasing both the workload of and risk to human aviators.
The Army imagines several uses for an autonomous helicopter. Since the Black Hawk can lift much heavier cargo than a drone can, the autonomous Black Hawks could be used to resupply troops in combat. The service is also exploring how technologies such as ALIAS might fit into the Army’s Future Vertical Lift program, according to DARPA.
Cherepinsky said he envisioned potential uses in combating nuclear disasters similar to the 2011 Fukushima incident, or even helping firefighters battle wildfires around the clock or in low-visibility conditions.
The ALIAS program is in its final phases. DARPA personnel are now “actively working with the Army to transition the capabilities to the services to engage in them,” Young said. “We’re really focusing on getting the transition agreements in place with the Army to let them take it in the direction that they want to go.”