No Pilots? No Problem. DARPA Black Hawk Makes 1st Unmanned Flight

February 9, 2022Hannah Ray Lambert
Black Hawk

An unmanned Black Hawk developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency took its first pilotless flight Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. US Army photo from 2009 by Sgt. Travis Zielinski.

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.

black hawk unmanned
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System program completed a first-ever unmanned flight of a UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, over Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency photo.

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.

black hawk unmanned
A UH-60M Black Hawk assists with hoist operations with 82nd Airborne’s IVAS Enabled Air Assault teams during Project Convergence 21, Oct. 26, 2021, in Yuma, Arizona. US Army photo by Scott C. Childress.

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.”

Read Next: WATCH: Leaked Video of Fiery F-35 Crash on Carl Vinson

Hannah Ray Lambert
Hannah Ray Lambert

Hannah Ray Lambert is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die who previously covered everything from murder trials to high school trap shooting teams. She spent several months getting tear gassed during the 2020-2021 civil unrest in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working, Hannah enjoys hiking, reading, and talking about authors and books on her podcast Between Lewis and Lovecraft.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
Dear Jack: I'm Retiring From The Military — Help!

In this installment of “Dear Jack,” Marine veteran Jack Mandaville helps a career service member figure out life after retirement.

March 31, 2023Jack Mandaville
navy chaplains suicide prevention
US Navy Deploys More Chaplains For Suicide Prevention

Growing mental health distress in the ranks carries such grave implications that the U.S. chief of n...

March 31, 2023Associated Press
ukraine lessons learned
Opinion & Essay
Nolan Peterson: Lessons From Russia's Invasion of Ukraine

After living in and reporting from Ukraine the last nine years, conflict journalist Nolan Peterson h...

March 30, 2023Nolan Peterson
black hawk crash kentucky
9 Killed In Army Black Hawk Helicopter Crash In Kentucky

Nondice Thurman, a spokesperson for Fort Campbell, said Thursday morning that the deaths happened the previous night in southwestern Kentucky during a routine training mission.

March 30, 2023Associated Press
richard stayskal act military medical malpractice
DOD Denies Most Stayskal Act Malpractice Claims

Master Sgt. Richard Stayskal was diagnosed with lung cancer long after military doctors missed a tum...

March 29, 2023Maggie BenZvi
ukrainian wounded soldiers
‘On Tour In Hell’: Wounded Ukrainian Soldiers Evacuated

With bandaged heads and splinted limbs, the wounded soldiers are stretchered into the waiting medica...

March 27, 2023Associated Press
US oil mission
US Launches Airstrikes in Syria After Drone Kills US Worker

While it’s not the first time the U.S. and Iran have traded airstrikes in Syria, the attack and the ...

March 24, 2023Associated Press
The Gift jason dunham
‘The Gift’ Explores the Life and Legacy of Medal of Honor Recipient Jason Dunham

"The Gift" tells the story of the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor after the Vietnam War. ...

March 24, 2023Mac Caltrider
  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
  • Request a Correction
  • Write for Us
  • General Inquiries
© 2023 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved