A 14,000 pound UH-60A Black Hawk has successfully flown without a pilot in a historical flight around Fort Campbell, the first automated flight for the US Army. The unmanned flight was said to be completed within 30 minutes last February 5, with another flight conducted on February 7th.

In partnership with the Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Sikorsky, the UH-60 Black Hawk was said to be retrofitted with the new flight system known as Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS), which flew the aircraft independently of any human intervention. The system is currently being tested on 14 different US Army aircraft.

A Black Hawk helicopter flying unmanned in a test by DARPA and Sikorsky (Lockheed Martin). Source: https://www.lockheedmartin.com/en-us/news/features/2022/safe-reliable-and-uninhabited-first-autonomous-black-hawk-flight.html
A Black Hawk helicopter flying unmanned in a test by DARPA and Sikorsky (Lockheed Martin)

However, this unmanned flight was specifically using a Black Hawk that was fitted with Sikorsky MATRIX, an artificial intelligence technology that also forms the ALIAS. According to Sikorsky’s website, MATRIX acts like a virtual second pilot that can help navigate dangerous and complex missions. MATRIX can fly a rotorcraft without a pilot or with all pilots as well. It especially thrives in missions wherein helicopters need to fly in low altitudes, where many obstacles are found.

It was reported that the Black Hawk helicopter flew around a simulated version of the Manhattan skyline in an attempt to demonstrate how effective and reliable the artificial technology was in an obstacle-rich environment.

This obstacle-rich environment was simulated through the Light Detection and Ranging (LiDar) system to replicate the dense nature of New York. It was said to fly around the post on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, “as if it was in downtown Manhattan.”

“The aircraft was avoiding, essentially, buildings in real-time,” said Sikorsky Innovation director Igor Cherepinsky.

The aforementioned artificial intelligence technology was said to be developed as a response to human error and poor visibility, two elements that make up the leading causes of accidents and mishaps in military aviation. With ALIAS and MATRIX, these errors will lessen and minimize the potential of having an accident as ALIAS specializes in conditions that normally ground a helicopter.

“This includes the ability to operate aircraft in day or night, with and without pilots, and in a variety of difficult conditions, such as contested, congested, and degraded visual environments,” DARPA program manager Stuart Young said.

In around six years of development, this was the only test that did not involve a pilot. All previous testings always had a pilot on-board in case a failure was detected on the part of the automated system.

Cherepinsky, who has led Sikorsky’s autonomous flight research since 2016, explained that the Sikorsky MATRIX autonomy system was said to have contributing features that enabled pilots to have reduced workload and enable the helicopter to fly in degraded conditions which are either plagued with limited visibility or poor communications.

DARPA’s new artificial intelligence software ALIAS is a program pursuing to fit existing aircraft with removable kits so that it could fly autonomously, presenting the US Army with a variety of new uses for the helicopter and other aircraft. DARPA and the Lockheed-owned Sikorsky has said to have invested about $160 million into the ALIAS program, which is set to be completed by the end of 2022.

“If we would have lost an engine, the system actually would have handled it. If we lost both engines, the system using LIDAR would have picked a landing zone and ordered the aircraft down, Cherepinsky added.

These systems can potentially be used on commercial helicopters and aircraft as well and have been incorporated into several commercial fixed-wing aircraft. It can be remembered that the legendary basketball player Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna along with seven others, crashed into a California hillside due to misty and cloudy conditions, which ultimately led to the fatal crash due to pilot error. It is in these types of situations that ALIAS and MATRIX are touted as being able to mitigate these conditions for safe flight.