The optionally piloted “me too” club grew by one on March 11 when Sikorsky Aircraft demonstrated its own optionally piloted U.S. Army UH-60MU Black Hawk (OPBH) for the first time. The flight took place at Sikorsky’s Development Flight Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., Sikorsky revealed in an announcement on April 21.
Known within Sikorsky as the Manned/Unmanned Resupply Aerial Lifter (MURAL) program, the helicopter utilizes Sikosky’s Matrix and advanced Ground Control Station (GCS) technologies. A man-portable GCS was employed to demonstrate the OPBH’s potential to be taken to the field in an expeditionary warfare scenario.
The MURAL program is shared between the U.S. Army Aviation Development Directorate (ADD), the U.S. Army Utility Helicopters Project Office (UH PO) and Sikorsky. The UH PO supplied the two UH-60MU Black Hawks are supplied by UH PO while Sikorsky has incorporated technology which it developed through Internal Research and Development funding.
The Sikorsky optionally piloted flight took place almost a year after Airbus Helicopters’ flight of its EC145 optionally piloted vehicle (OPV) which was conducted at the French Air Force base in Istres, France on April 25, 2013. On that occasion the OPV made two flights – one with a pilot who was present but did not fly, and the second completely unmanned.
“The ADD’s mission is to focus on developing, demonstrating and applying critical technologies that enhance the capability, affordability, readiness and safety of Department of Defense aviation systems,” said Dr. William Lewis, director, ADD.
More of a near-time benefit was described by Col. Thomas Todd, the Utility Helicopters project manager: “MURAL technology will advance material solutions related to degraded visual environment operations. These solutions will provide critical flight control and flight handling quality improvements.”
Mark Miller, Sikorsky vice president of research and engineering, drew attention toward the ability to increase sortie rate with OPV aircraft.
Last year, the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA) made its first flight. SARA is an S-76 with fly-by-wire controls that can self-select a safe landing site (demonstrations were made at this year’s Heli-Expo in Anaheim, Calif.).
The drive behind the installation of Matrix Technology, developed by Sikorsky Innovations, is to provide rotary and fixed wing aircraft with the system intelligence which will allow complex missions to be flown with minimum human oversight, either from the crew or on the ground, and at all heights.
Optionally piloted Black Hawk. Photo courtesy of Sikorsky
SARA flew for the first time on July 26, 2013. The Matrix program completed Phase 1 in late 2013, during which the demonstrator flew a full autonomous mission that demonstrated it can take off from an airport, fly a pattern, and return to the airport. The flight was done without sensors in the loop.
In Phase 2, a data-link and multi-spectral sensor package was added to the SARA demonstrator which added what Sikorsky calls “perception and sensor-in-the-loop flight.” Said Igor Cherepinsky, chief engineer for Sikorsky’s autonomy program: “The sensors allow her [SARA] to fly at full speed, avoid obstacles, select landing zones, and do other tasks that are perceptually intensive.”
Sikorsky lists is Matrix Technology as addresses four particular challenges:
1) Low altitude, obstacle rich autonomous flight
2) Multi-level contingency management to achieve a needed 100X improvement in levels of system reliability
3) A path to qualification or certification, and
4) Lifecycle cost reduction
According to Chris Van Buiten, vice president of Sikorsky Innovations, by the end of the year Matrix Technology will have demonstrated “safe flight in obstacle-rich environments, [as well as] shipboard and brownout condition landings.”
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