Sikorsky flies unmanned Black Hawk missions

  • November 8, 2022
  • William Payne

Sikorsky has demonstrated an autonomous helicopter performing internal and external cargo resupply missions and a rescue mission. The demonstrations used an uninhabited Black Hawk helicopter flying autonomously, and the missions were part of a DARPA programme to develop autonomous flight employing conventional aircraft.

The demonstrations were performed in October by Sikorsky, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, at Yuma, a US Army Proving Ground in Arizona. Three demonstrations were carried out as part of the US Army’s Project Convergence 2022 (PC22) experiment. The objective is to demonstrate how existing and future piloted utility helicopters could also be utilised to fly complex missions in either reduced crew or autonomous mode, allowing resupply and rescue in limited visibility or contested environments.

Sikorsky’s autonomy system, known as MATRIX technology, forms the core of DARPA’s ALIAS (Aircrew Labour In-cockpit Automation System) project.

During PC22 Technology Gateway, the Sikorsky and DARPA team showed how the optionally piloted Black Hawk helicopter with no humans on board can deliver a large quantity of blood product unharmed by flying low and fast above ground level using the terrain to mask its signature; resupply troops with an external load; and re-route mid-flight to evacuate a casualty.

“We believe MATRIX technology is ready now for transition to the Army as they look to modernise the enduring helicopter fleet, and acquire Future Vertical Lift aircraft,” said Igor Cherepinsky, director of Sikorsky Innovations. “In addition to increasing flight safety and reliability, MATRIX technology enables survivability in high tempo, high threat 21st Century Security environments where Black Hawk helicopters operate today, and DEFIANT X and RAIDER X helicopters could operate in the future. Uncrewed or reduced crewed helicopters could safely perform critical and lifesaving missions day or night in complex terrain and in contested battlespace.”

To begin the flight demonstrations, pilots flew and landed the Black Hawk aircraft, then activated the MATRIX system to give full control to the flight computer. When the pilots exited, the helicopter autonomously completed a number of missions, including long-endurance medical resupply, and a combined cargo delivery and casualty evacuation.

During the long-endurance medical resupply, the Black Hawk aircraft flew 83 miles while loaded with 400 units of real and simulated blood – totalling 500 pounds. On reaching 40 miles from its initial take-off point, the helicopter descended into a valley as low as 200 feet above ground level at 100 knots.

In the combined cargo delivery and casualty evacuation mission, the helicopter 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. While in flight, the helicopter was redirected, simulating a scenario in which a threat needed to be neutralised near the primary landing site. Sikorsky demonstrated how a ground operator with a secure radio and tablet can take control of the uncrewed helicopter, command it to release its sling load, and then land to evacuate a casualty from a nearby location. Once the manikin on a litter was secured inside the cabin, the ground operator launched the aircraft. During the return flight, a BATDOK health monitoring device integrated with the helicopter’s communications system relayed the patient’s vitals in real-time to a ground-based medical team.

The PC22 demonstrations were the second set of uninhabited Black Hawk flights this year. Sikorsky and DARPA will continue to work toward the transition of this technology for military operations, such as aircrew support and operations, logistics and medical resupply, casualty evacuation, and commercial applications such as firefighting, cargo and urban air mobility.