A Black Hawk has flown without a Pilot for the first time. It was converted into a drone by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), for a program known as ALIAS. The test flights took place at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. A Sikorsky-made MATRIX autonomy system controlled the unmanned helicopter, courtesy of Lockheed Martin.
The technology isn’t strictly used to turn a helicopter into a drone. Instead, a new switch is installed on board to indicate if there are two pilots, one pilot, or no pilot operating the helicopter. The test flight on February 5, 2022, was the first time the modified UH-60A flew into the air with the no pilots option switched on. This means the computer system was the only thing handling the Black Hawk’s controls.
A 30-minute test flight was conducted, mainly focusing on the technology’s ability to control the chopper in different environments. For this specific test, the computer was programmed to act as if it had to navigate around skyscrapers in Manhattan. The Black hawk reacted accordingly and executed “a series of pedal turns, maneuvers and straightaways before completing a perfect landing. After it landed, two pilots got in, switched the controls back to pilot-operated, and taxied it down the runway.
It flew 4,000 feet above the ground at speeds of 115 and 125 MPH. Another brief autonomous test flight was conducted with the same Black Hawk on February 7, 2022. The DARPA program has been around for approximately six years, and ALIAS, which stands for Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System, has been in business for over 50 years.
According to Stuart Young, program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, the tests have three primary goals: to prevent an aircraft from doing something disastrous; to provide in-flight assistance; to reduce costs, either regarding maintenance or personnel-training fees.
“With ALIAS, the Army will have much more operational flexibility,” he said in a press release. “This includes the ability to operate aircraft at all times of the day or night, with or without pilots, and in a variety of difficult conditions, such as contested, congested, and degraded visual environments.”