The phrase “pilot optional” likely strikes fear into the hearts of any autonomous vehicle skeptics but some recent tests showed how a Black Hawk helicopter can successfully fly itself.
Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company, and DARPA last month demonstrated an unmanned flight with a Black Hawk outfitted with an autonomy system. During the test on the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, the helicopter delivered a large quantity of blood product without any human crew members on board.
Sikorsky said the Black Hawk was able to fly low and fast above ground level using the terrain to mask its signature. The demonstration included a troop resupply run and a mid-flight rerouting to evacuate a casualty. Specifically, the Black Hawk flew 83 miles while loaded with 400 units of real and simulated blood – totaling 500 pounds – then it descended into a valley as low as 200 feet above ground level at 100 knots.
The helicopter also lifted off with a 2,600-pound external load attached to a 40-foot sling, and flew at 100 knots for 30 minutes toward a designated landing zone.
The demonstration also included a ground operator with a secure radio and tablet taking control of the helicopter, commanding it to release its sling load, and then landing to evacuate a casualty from a nearby location. A manikin was loaded into the Black Hawk and a health monitoring device integrated with the helicopter's communications system relayed the patient's vitals in real-time to a ground-based medical team.
Sikorsky and DARPA envision the autonomous Black Hawk running complex missions to support troops while putting fewer pilots and crew members at risk.