Sikorsky's Black Hawk Helicopter Flew for First Time Without Pilots

Feb. 11, 2022

Feb. 10—Two years after a helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant and eight others crashed into a California hillside shrouded in mist, Sikorsky and parent company Lockheed Martin are reporting the successful takeoff and landing of an "uninhabited" helicopter — with one major goal to allow pilots to fly more safely in poor visibility when passengers are aboard.

Last Saturday marked the first time Sikorsky has flown a Black Hawk helicopter with no one on board, though Sikorsky had tested the system previously with pilots riding in the cockpit.

Designed to simulate a flight through downtown Manhattan, the test was conducted at Fort Campbell, which straddles the Kentucky- Tennessee line northwest of Nashville. A video posted online showed portions of the flight.

Stratford-based Sikorsky has been developing its autonomous flight technology for more than a decade, using a mix of existing capabilities like LIDAR pulses, which maps terrain instantaneously, and filing for patent protection on varying components of the system its own engineers developed in Connecticut.

Those include sensors to identify landing zones without pilot input on where aircraft can land safely, and helping the system analyze information on surroundings during flight and react in the moment as any pilot would.

"The aircraft was avoiding, essentially, buildings in real time," Igor Cherepinsky, director of Sikorsky Innovations who has led the company's autonomous flight research since 2016, said this week during a virtual press conference about the Fort Campbell test flights.

"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."

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has provided funding for the prototype system, with DARPA's mission to develop new technologies for the military that can also be used by civilians.

Stuart Young, a DARPA program manager, said development work is largely done and the technology is ready to be fielded at the Pentagon's request.

The Federal Aviation Administration tracked 112 civilian helicopter accidents in 2019, the most recent year for which it has posted detailed information online. Leaving out accidents involving failures of onboard systems or flight lessons with inexperienced students at the helm, just over half of those incidents occurred during takeoff, landing or aerial maneuvering with pilot error a contributing factor.

The helicopter carrying Bryant — a Sikorsky S-76 model — crashed on Jan. 26, 2020, after a charter pilot attempted to fly through low cloud cover, relying on instruments for information on altitude and direction.

While Sikorsky envisions the system as an auto-pilot mechanism to allow crews to focus on other details of any mission, it says the system could also be used to send unmanned flights into hostile zones where commanders fear for the lives of pilots, or conditions when flights would be grounded such as stormy nights.

"We've shown enough automation and resiliency in the system that the system can be taken out into operational environments. for the Army to explore what they want the actual aircraft to do," Young said Tuesday. "There's a plethora of options an unmanned aircraft can do for them, and they need to uncover those and develop the requirements. They don't have to wait to be able to do that — the capability exists now."

In addition to the military applications, Cherepinsky noted the potential of the technology for emergency medical flights or humanitarian missions when pilots must land in unfamiliar surroundings, or other difficult tasks like round-the-clock runs to dump water on wildfires threatening communities.

"We just want to show the art of the possible, and the ideas will start rolling in," Cherepinsky said.

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