Sikorskys Optionally Piloted Black Hawk

2011-02-18

Sikorskys Optionally Piloted Black Hawk The crew, at the end of their duty time, switch the helicopter to unmanned mode and disembark. The Black Hawk searches for and connects to the nearest ground control station, accepts the preprogrammed mission and takes off to find and pick up its first load.

Thats the operational concept behind Sikorskys Optionally Piloted Black Hawk, and is to be demonstrated by mid-2011 under the U.S. Armys Manned/Unmanned Resupply Aerial Lifter (Mural) program.

Mural will use one of two UH-60M fly-by-wire development aircraft to demonstrate fully autonomous operation, from taking off through picking up a load and flying a route to returning for the next pickup.

Unmanned resupply is an early application of Sikorskys optionally piloted conceptthe ability to selectively remove one or both pilots from the cockpit while maintaining the full spectrum of Black Hawk capabilities.

We are focusing on resupply for two reasons, says Jesse Lesperance, autonomy lead for Sikorsky Innovations. The Defense Department has identified it as a gap, and its one of the simplest missions to which we can apply optionally piloted technologies. Logistic resupply also offers the greatest potential to integrate autonomy into Black Hawks in the field, says Jim Kagdis, advanced programs manager.

For the demonstration, the autonomous control software will be loaded onto the UH-60M flight-by-wire computers, and the helicopter will be fitted with a Tactical Common Data Link terminal to talk to the ground control station. Optionally piloted mode will be engaged via a new button on the flight director panel.

There will be two types of ground station. Sikorsky is working with Kutta Technologies on a man-wearable expeditionary control system incorporating voice recognition (above). The operator will speak to the aircraft, which will recognize commands and respond, he says. Commands will be suggestions to the vehicle, which will decide if it can perform them safety.

The optionally piloted Black Hawk will also interface with the Armys AAI One Station universal ground control system (UGCS), which will act as the primary command center. Because the UGCS can control a range of unmanned aircraft, Lesperance says Sikorsky is developing tools to guide the operator when tasking and controlling a Black Hawk.

The helicopter also will be equipped with a sensor to identify the pickup zone and load. Sikorsky is working with Advanced Optical Systems, which has developed an autonomous sling-load cargo pickup and delivery system called Hermes. This uses optical and radio-frequency sensors to acquire a visible bar-code target and identify and pick up a specific load among several.

During the initial Mural flights, the sling load will be attached manually, but fully autonomous pickup will be demonstrated during the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment later in 2011. Participation in this annual wargame will provide a more complete test of the system in an operational environment, Lesperance says.

Although resupply is one of the simpler missions, contingency managementprogramming the aircraft to deal with failures and emergenciesis still difficult and will be tackled in stages. For 2011, we are focusing on the first tier of contingency management: lost link, etc. We will extend later to additional sensors and failure modes, he says.

Sikorsky is also working on the sensors required to give the helicopter greater awareness of its environment, in manned and unmanned operation. This includes the ability to detect and avoid hazards such as wires and obstacles. A millimeter-wave radar sensor and synthetic-vision system designed to overcome brownout has already been flight-tested under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agencys Sandblaster program.

Another early target is to reduce pilot workload by automating formation flying. This was demonstrated in June, with a UH-60 testbed helicopter automatically following another Black Hawk with no direct communication between the two. The testbed aircraft was fitted with a camera system that used video tracking to find and follow the lead helicopter.



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