A Black Hawk helicopter flew for the first time without pilots

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A front view of a UH-60A Blackhawk helicopter in-flight during Operation Desert Shield.

The empty UH-60 was part of a DARPA program and featured autonomous flight technology from Sikorsky.

So far, February has been an exciting month for autonomous flight. On Saturday, for the first time ever, a specially equipped Blackhawk helicopter flew without any humans onboard. The computer-piloted aircraft was being tested as a part of a DARPA project called Alias, and these tests were taking place out of Fort Campbell.

A front view of a UH-60A Blackhawk helicopter in-flight during Operation Desert Shield.

The retrofitted helicopter was controlled by a Sikorksy-made autonomous system. As part of that safety system, the helicopter has an indicator that allows the pilots to indicate whether two pilots will be flying the chopper, one pilot, or no pilots at all. This was the first flight where a Black Hawk helicopter had been flown without any pilots at all. So, the computer system was controlling everything. While these were just tests, they hint at a potential future where the Army could potentially send a fully autonomous helicopter on a dangerous mission—and have no people on board.

The first test took place on February 5. “The pilots shifted the knob from 0 to 100,” said Stuart Young, the project manager for Alias at Darpa, during a press conference on Tuesday. “We did some simple forward flights, and some pedal turns.”

That short flight was then followed by another approximately 30 minute one the same day. On the longer flight from Kentucky to New York City, Igor Cherepinksy, the director of Sikorksy Innovations, noted that they were able to simulate the sensors on the Black Hawk helicopter so that it would act as if it was dodging buildings in Manhattan.

Cherepinsky noted that the unmanned Black Hawk flew at around four thousand feet of altitude and at a speed of about 115 to 125 mph. Another brief autonomous flight took place on Monday with the same plane.

As a general rule, this kind of autonomy tech has three main goals: The first thing to remember when flying is safety. Ideally, it helps prevent an aircraft from doing anything dangerous like flying into terrain or structures. The second is in flight assistance, so that the crew can concentrate on larger-scale issues, like the overall mission, instead of having to deal with smaller-scale issues. “If you can remove some lower level functions, we can allow pilots to be unburdended,” Young said. And the third is reducing costs, whether through training fees or even maintenance.

The DARPA ALIAS program that this test was part of has been going on for about six years. The acronym ALIAS stands for Aircrew labor in-cockpit automation system. Sikorsky, which is developing autonomous helicopter technology, has also been working in this field for several years. Sikorsky, a company developing autonomous helicopter technology, is also working in this field for some time. That helicopter was used as a testbed for this kind of autonomous technology. It had traditional controls, joystick-style controls called inceptors and a tablet control system

“SARA was where we developed all of these things,” Cherepin­sky said. “The UH-60 Black Hawk is very similar to it.

With these uncreweds flights now on the books and the program winding down, Young said that the DARPA program is currently in the process of transitioning the capabilities to the services and that the Air Force is also interested in this type of technology for its F-16 fighters.

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